Technology has connected individuals like never before, and yet more people are feeling lonely and isolated. Loneliness can lead to serious health concerns – and even early death – causing experts to respond to the issue.
In 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory calling loneliness and isolation a health epidemic. It notes that loneliness and social isolation can contribute to a worsening of mental and physical health issues.
It’s an issue that affects people across generations and life circumstances. A 2020 Harvard study found that 61% of adults ages 18 to 25 reported feeling serious loneliness, compared with 39% across the general population. In 2023, one in three adults ages 50 to 80 reported feeling isolated from others. Mothers of young children are also at risk, with 51% reporting they are lonely.
Melissa Laughlin Holtz, a Mental Health Clinician with ThedaCare Behavioral Health, explained those are all concerning statistics. She added that people experiencing loneliness are more likely to suffer adverse health consequences including depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality, diminished executive function, accelerated cognitive decline or dementia, impaired immune system, higher inflammation, heart disease, stroke and risk of suicide. Studies have shown that individuals who report feeling lonely are more likely to die an early death than those who do not.
Unpacking the Uptick
Multiple factors have led to the increase in loneliness. Experts say the COVID-19 pandemic, which in many cases required people to isolate from others, played a part in worsening the issue.
At the same time, loneliness was a problem well before the pandemic. Many variables can influence loneliness. People may feel unwelcome due to their gender, sexual orientation, race, age or health conditions. This can lead to feelings of isolation.
“Many LGBTQIA+ and Black, Indigenous and People of Color may feel like they are being ‘othered’ or are not welcome in spaces that they want to be,” Laughlin Holtz said. “Older adults and individuals living with disabilities or chronic diseases are another group of people who can feel isolated, especially if it’s hard for them to leave their home.”
Anyone can feel lonely or isolated. The key to addressing those feelings is finding ways to reach out and get involved in activities you enjoy, Laughlin Holtz noted.
Technology can have pluses and minuses when it comes to feeling lonely, she continued. While it connects people whenever and wherever they may be, it can also prevent true communication from happening.
“How often do you visit a restaurant and see people on their phones despite being seated with friends or loved ones?” Laughlin Holtz asked. “We’re missing these connections even when they are right in front of us.”
Laughlin Holtz offers these ideas for fostering greater connection and well-being:
- Stop comparing yourself with others. This fits well with taking a break from social media. While social media often seems like an appealing way to maintain connections with loved ones, it can sometimes increase feelings of loneliness.
- Practice gratitude. Keep a daily gratitude journal where you write down things that you’re grateful for. You can later go back and read them when you’re feeling down.
- Take time to reflect. This could be journaling, taking a mindful walk, or practicing meditation.
- Join a club or take a class. Sign up for an activity that gets you out of the house. Volunteering for a local organization can help you feel more connected to other individuals while doing good for your community.
- Get outdoors. Take a walk or spend time in nature, making sure you pay attention to the sights, sounds, and smells around you. Time in nature can ease emotional distress and boost overall wellness.
- Engage in activities. Participate in a hobby or sport you enjoy.
- Spend time with animals. Pets have been shown to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety.
- Open up and talk to someone. This could be a friend, family member, faith leader, primary care provider or therapist.
- Develop a routine that provides balance and familiarity. Make a daily schedule that includes physical activity, time with friends or loved ones, a project or hobby and a calming pleasure.
- Savor the small stuff. Seemingly minor gestures like smiling at the barista or thanking the bagger at the grocery store can create feelings of connection.
How to Help
If family members and friends realize someone they know is lonely, it is important to reach out and let them know you are there and ready to listen explained Laughlin Holtz.
“You might have to be patient,” she said. “When someone is lonely, especially if it’s accompanied by poor mental or physical health, they may become angry or feel misunderstood by others. You may need to provide encouragement and support, reminding them that when they connect with some help, they will start feeling better.”
Those experiencing loneliness or other mental health struggles can talk to their primary care provider, who can connect them to resources. ThedaCare Behavioral Health also offers many care options, including group therapy and Behavioral Health Walk-in Care in Neenah.
For nearly 115 years, ThedaCare® has been improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 650,000 residents in 17 counties, and employs approximately 7,000 providers and team members at 180 points of care, including eight hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique, best lives. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, find solutions together, and encourage health awareness and action. In 2024, ThedaCare and Froedtert Health combined to form one system to strengthen local health care and provide high-quality services for treatment and prevention in a coordinated manner.