Recently, on a home visit to a patient I asked, “How have you been since the last time I was here?” He said he was fine, but I thought he looked sadder than when I saw him last. After a brief cry, we started talking about how he really felt.
My patient had been affected by a public health issue: exposure to asbestos leading to a diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma. He also was affected by another public health issue becoming an epidemic – loneliness and social isolation. Because loneliness is such a problem for mesothelioma patients, I encourage caregivers and medical providers to take time to listen to the patient, really listen to what they are saying and what they are not saying. This can have a profound effect on their physical and mental health. To be our healthiest, physically and mentally, we need to relate to each other. The strength of the bonds that we have with other people can help us feel connected, and part of something.
Loneliness is an epidemic that affects people throughout the world. Not only does it affect your mental health, it has a direct effect on physical health. The physiological way that loneliness affects health is that it can trigger some of the same hormones that your body makes when it is under stress. Long term stress is detrimental to health.
Doctors in England have recently recognized loneliness as a public health epidemic. This past summer, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a national Minister of Loneliness. Indeed, by 2023, doctors in England will write prescriptions for cooking classes and walking groups as part of a government initiative to combat loneliness. This is a new program called “Social Prescribing.” The plan is for doctors to recommend group activities, such as cooking classes, walking groups and art clubs, instead of medication. In fact, the British government reports that about 200,000 older people across the country haven’t had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.
It is not just the elderly who are suffering from loneliness. In 2018, Cigna, a health care insurer, conducted a study indicating half of all Americans reported they feel alone, isolated, or left out at least some of the time. In fact, American Millennial and Generation Z adults – about 75 million people total – are lonelier than any other U.S. demographic and report being in worse health than older generations. Being connected on the internet is not the same as human interactions and relationships.
The physical toll that loneliness takes on mortality is suggested to be the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it more dangerous than obesity. People who are lonely and isolated are more at risk for heart disease, stroke, immune system illnesses, and often have a harder time recovering from cancer. Loneliness has also been found to contribute to premature death for people of all ages.
In the age of social media, how can we combat this potential epidemic? We can all make a conscious effort to connect with people. Try to connect with people in your community, church, and neighborhood. Do not assume that everything is okay, or that you would be intruding on someone’s privacy. People who find themselves feeling isolated and alone can benefit from support groups, adult classes, volunteering – any activity fostering connections with people will help.
Listen to your neighbors, family, and friends. Reach out and connect.