February 22, 2024

Eleanor Rigbys are everywhere, says WHO

The World Health Organization has added loneliness to its long list of priority health areas.

“High rates of social isolation and loneliness around the world have serious consequences for health and well-being. People without enough strong social connections are at higher risk of stroke, anxiety, dementia, depression, suicide and more,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “This WHO Commission will help establish social connection as a global health priority and share the most promising interventions.”

Dr Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General, is co-chair of the new commission. He has been highlighting loneliness for years. Earlier this year, his department identified “social connection” as a top priority and published an 82-page report, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation”. In a New York Times op-ed, he wrote: “Addressing the crisis of loneliness and isolation is one of our generation’s greatest challenges. … our need for human connection is like our need for food and water: essential for our survival.”

Social isolation – having an insufficient number of social connections, and loneliness – and the social pain of not feeling connected, are widespread, according to WHO.

Nor is it just a problem for older people in high-income countries; all age groups are affected. One in four older people across the world experience social isolation. Among adolescents, between 5 to 15% experience loneliness.

Lack of social connection carries an equivalent, or even greater, risk of early death as other better-known risk factors – such as smoking, excessive drinking, physical inactivity, obesity, and air pollution. Social isolation also has a serious impact on physical and mental health; studies show that it has been linked to anxiety and depression and can increase risk of cardiovascular disease by 30%.

The new WHO Commission will define a global agenda on social connection; raising awareness and building collaborations that will drive evidence-based solutions for countries, communities and individuals. This agenda has particular significance at this time, given how the COVID-19 pandemic and its social and economic repercussions undermined social connections.

Social disconnection also can lead to poorer education outcomes; young people experiencing loneliness in high school are more likely to drop out of university. It can also lead to poorer economic outcomes; feeling disconnected and unsupported in your job can lead to poorer job satisfaction and performance.