WHO makes loneliness a global health priority

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World Health Organization logo (image:courtesy of Padrinan)

The World Health Organization (WHO) is making loneliness a global health priority by launching a new Commission on Social Connection. For the next three years, the commission will focus on ways to address the “pressing health threat” of a global epidemic of loneliness, reviewing the latest science and designing strategies to help people deepen their social connections. It’s co-chaired by African Union Youth Envoy Chido Mpemba and US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy, who has written spoken extensively about the risks of social isolation and has made the issue one of his top concerns while in office. Murthy said it is an “underappreciated” threat to health that has now become widespread. “For too long, loneliness has existed behind the shadows, unseen and underappreciated, driving mental and physical illness,” he said. “Now, we have an opportunity to change that.”

Committee member Dr Karen DeSalvo, the chief health officer at Google, said that when she was a clinician and health commissioner of New Orleans, she learned firsthand that “great care matters, but it has to happen in a context” – and that includes social connection. Knocking on doors in New Orleans after a hurricane took out power and left homes swelteringly hot, she and colleagues tried to get people to go to shelters, but it was difficult to get some to leave, even when so many were so alone. “People can easily get in the margins and get isolated, and it affects their health outcomes”, DeSalvo said. Someone may seek help for chest pain, for example, and the health care system will focus on treating that pain, but it’s difficult for them to actually get better if they are discharged into social isolation, she said.

Loneliness has drawn a lot of attention recently in the public health sector. Last week, New York state appointed sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer as its first loneliness ambassador. In May, Murthy laid out a framework to tackle loneliness and “mend the fabric of our nation.” And it’s not just a US phenomenon; in 2018, the UK appointed its first minister for loneliness. “Social disconnection has now become a key driver of the broader mental health crisis that we are seeing in this world”, Murthy said. Roughly a billion people – one in eight – are living with a mental health problem, a quarter of them adolescents, he said.

Loneliness and social isolation can also lead to poor physical health. People who lack social connection face a higher risk of dying early. Loneliness and social isolation have long been associated with poor immune function and cardiovascular problems like high blood pressure, and they increase the risk of stroke by 30 per cent. They also contribute to cognitive decline and are associated with a 50 per cent increase in dementia. People who are isolated also tend to have more unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking to excess and being more sedentary. The health impact of loneliness is so far-reaching that one study compared it to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

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