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January 14, 2022

There’s a social isolation epidemic. But it can be fixed.

Credit: The Hill, Risa Wilkerson and Edward Garcia

Amid the explosive spread of the omicron variant, much of the conversation around COVID-19 has focused on the potential health consequences of getting together. But not enough has focused on the health consequences of isolation.

Social isolation and loneliness afflict tens of millions of Americans of virtually all ages, with health impacts equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, drinking too much alcohol, or being obese.  In addition, this problem costs the U.S. economy an estimated $406 billion a year, not to mention the estimated $6.7 billion it costs Medicare every year. And, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis is getting worse—not better.

But our policymakers have yet to seriously address social isolation and loneliness, which have reached epidemic proportions in the United States, affecting two-thirds of older adults and 60 percent to 73 percent of young people. Instead, there’s a tendency to view social isolation and loneliness as a lifestyle choice or a personality trait.

Social well-being — the strength of a person’s relationships and social networks — is rooted in community design, social norms, public policy, and systems. The same holds true for its opposite, social isolation, which disproportionately affects groups of people and communities who are commonly oppressed and marginalized.

Take, for example, policies like the now-illegal practice of redlining, which denied housing loans based on a person’s race and isolated entire neighborhoods. Anti-loitering laws, also racially motivated, criminalize people for using public spaces. And decades of underinvestment have led to high crime rates and poorly maintained public spaces in some communities, making it difficult for residents to feel safe mingling outside with their neighbors.

Social isolation is linked to depression, poor sleep, and impaired immunity. It increases the risks of dementia by 50 percent, stroke by 32 percent, and coronary heart disease by 29 percent. It also significantly increases the risk of premature death from all causes. Having strong social connections, on the other hand, promotes good health and can boost a person’s lifespan by as much as 50 percent.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased policymakers’ awareness of social isolation and its impacts, which have manifested in many places through increased rates of alcohol and drug use, increased reports of loneliness and depression, and higher rates of treatment-seeking for mental health problems.

But the public health crisis of social isolation both pre-dates and goes far beyond COVID-19. It affects people of all ages, demographics, and identities across the country.

This fall, we were encouraged to see that Congress seemed ready to address social isolation and loneliness as a public health crisis. The House included $250 million in grant funding for community-based programs related to social isolation and loneliness, as part of its Build Back Better package. But the Senate version dropped that provision, and now it’s back to the drawing board.

That $250 million allocation, however, would have represented a serious start to stemming the social isolation and loneliness epidemic, with funding going to on-the-ground organizations supporting some of society’s most vulnerable members.

Policymakers across the board must think and act broadly to reverse the tide of social isolation and build social connected communities where people know and trust each other, where they feel welcomed and represented, and where they are motivated and supported to be civically engaged. This requires leadership, commitment, and resources from the highest levels, working across sectors and systems to strengthen policies, structures, and norms that increase social connectedness. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has shown tremendous leadership on this issue, as have Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) and Reps. David Trone (D-MD) and Tim Walberg (R-MI), but the need goes far beyond what a handful of policymakers can do.

Other countries — like Japan and the United Kingdom — have designated ministers of loneliness to spearhead national campaigns for addressing social isolation and its impacts. The U.S. should follow suit by creating a position at the White House level or across agencies to lead on promoting social connectedness. Launching a national awareness campaign should be one of the first priorities for this new office.

Resources are needed as well, to catalyze local initiatives for increasing social connectedness. Let’s find a way to reinstate that $250 million allocation for social isolation and loneliness grants — if not in the next infrastructure bill, then through some other means.

It’s time for leaders at every level of our government to start taking social isolation and loneliness seriously — to recognize that these are not personal problems but a public health crisis that warrants broad and immediate action.

Risa Wilkerson is Executive Director, Healthy Places by Design

Edward Garcia is Executive Director, Foundation for Social Connection