Changing the conversation about health

‘Loneliness is as bad for our health as 15 cigarettes a day’, says US Surgeon General

Social isolation can be as damaging for health as a smoking habit, a top US health official has warned, saying loneliness can potentially hasten death by nearly 30 per cent.

Speaking to BBC News, Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General, said that around 50 per cent of the population in the US had been affected by loneliness, and that it should be considered as bad for a person’s health as a drug addiction or obesity.

He said: “There is a strong link between loneliness and isolation and many of the other health issues that we face today – including heart disease and stroke. Conversely, our relationships with one another are a source of healing that can reduce our risk of illness.”

Dr Vivek Murthy, the current US Surgeon General has spoken out about the impact of loneliness on our health in a video address posted on Twitter (Image: @Surgeon_General)

In a frank interview, he also described how social isolation affected his own life after his work life consumed him, and left him alienated from his loved ones.

He said: “I had neglected my family and my friends during that time, thinking that it was too hard to focus on work, and focus on family and friends.

“I was really suffering from the consequences of that, which were a profound sense of loneliness that followed me for weeks, which stretched into months.”

Describing the epidemic as ‘a profound public health challenge’ that societies can’t ignore, he said being lonely was akin to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day when it comes to the impact it can have on health.

Lockdowns during the global pandemic saw loneliness levels increase, he added, as contact between friends and family was vastly reduced.

The College of Medicine has been a vocal supporter of raising awareness on the harmful effects loneliness can have on health.

Loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by nearly 30 per cent, studies have shown

The College of Medicine’s Chair, Dr Michael Dixon has previously said social prescribing remains a vital tool for helping to combat isolation, particularly for older generations.

He said: ‘Loneliness increases your risk of dying by over 25 per cent, with the mental and physical aspects of long-term isolation potentially devastating.

“Social prescribing is a hugely useful tool in helping to fight that unnecessary statistic because it can identify those who are lonely and isolated, provide opportunities for them.

“Providing all these connections and opportunities is crucial but social prescribing goes deeper. It is about inequalities and helping those who need help most.

“Vivek Murthy refers to the ‘Paradox of Loneliness’ which describes how those who feel most lonely may, paradoxically, often be those who are most resistant to social approaches and opportunities.”