'Excited to be out.' People look to social interaction in wake of loneliness and isolation report

Sean Coffey Image
Tuesday, May 2, 2023
People look to social interaction in wake of loneliness report
A new report from the Surgeon General is outlining the health risks for people lacking consistent in-person interaction

"This social disconnection increases the risk for premature death to the same levels as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day," U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said.

A new report from the U.S. Surgeon General is outlining the health risks for people lacking consistent in-person interaction. On Tuesday, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released the full report, which called loneliness an "epidemic" in the United States, and said extended isolation can increase one's risk of premature death by 30%. Another section of the report equated prolonged isolation to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Samantha Meltzer-Brody, chair of UNC-Chapel Hill's psychiatry department, says the link between loneliness and depression can lead to real, physical health risks.

"So we know that depression is also associated with inflammation, which can be associated with heart disease and stroke and dementia, all of which are mentioned. So none of these things happen in isolation," said Dr. Meltzer-Brody.

She says increased human reliance on electronic communication has compounded the issue since the pandemic, and believes we've taken a turn for the worse.

"We are social creatures," added Dr. Meltzer-Brody. "We need connection we need physical touch. We need the intimacy that comes with being in a room with a beloved family member or a dear friend and the energy you feel. And we have to get back to making that a priority."

In his report, Dr. Murthy said Americans need to seek more in-person interaction -- through recreational opportunities, community groups, or other means.

"Given the profound consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an opportunity, an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity and the addiction crisis," Murthy said in the report.

At Cary Senior Center, Pat Smith is taking that advice to heart. She's been a regular at events hosted by the center for six years and says during the pandemic the lack of community negatively impacted her health.

"I can tell you it was awful," said Smith. "My blood pressure skyrocketed. I was so stressed out, they had to put me on temporary medication."

We visited Pat's knitting and crocheting club on Tuesday, which Pat said was a prime example of the holistic benefits the center provides.

"It's a family away from a family so everybody takes care of each other. It's a wonderful experience and I love it and I'm grateful for it," she said.

It's not just senior citizens seeking new opportunities. John Collins, Cary's director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources, says enrollment in things like adult sports leagues has shot up since the pandemic.

"Folks are excited to be out. Folks are excited to be engaging in both activities and with one another in places that they just haven't been able to over the last, you know, two to three years," Collins said.

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If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, substance use or other mental health crises please call or text 988. Trained crisis counselors are available for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.