Loneliness Declared a Health Crisis: Equivalent to Smoking 15 Cigarettes a Day



As the world emerges from the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) has sounded the alarm on loneliness, deeming it a “pressing health threat” with risks comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes daily. This declaration comes as the effects of the “alone-virus epidemic” continue to contribute to mental and physical health challenges globally.

The Global Impact of Loneliness

Loneliness is transcending borders, emerging as a significant global public health concern affecting every aspect of health, well-being, and development, warns African Union Youth Envoy Chido Mpemba. Collaborating with US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, they co-chair the WHO’s newly established international Commission on Social Connection, a coalition focused on addressing the escalating isolation crisis, particularly intensified by COVID-19 lockdown measures.

The three-year mission of this commission is dedicated to combatting the profound health threat posed by loneliness and formulating strategies to rebuild social connections on a large scale.

Loneliness vs. Smoking: A Dire Comparison

The WHO’s declaration draws attention to the severity of loneliness by equating its risks to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This analogy underscores the urgency of addressing loneliness as a health crisis with consequences comparable to well-established risk factors.

Recent research from the University of Glasgow further supports this concern, revealing that not socializing with friends or family may increase the risk of premature death by 39%. In a study spanning 12 years and tracking 458,000 middle-aged participants, approximately 33,000 deaths were reported during the follow-up period.

Impact on Different Age Groups

WHO highlights that one in four older people experiences social isolation, while 5-15% of adolescents grapple with loneliness. These statistics emphasize that loneliness is not limited to a specific age group and poses a threat across diverse demographics.

The University of Glasgow’s study emphasizes the importance of genuine connections, noting that surface-level interactions did not significantly reduce the risk of premature death. Connecting with friends and family at least once a month emerged as a valuable practice in mitigating this risk.

The Role of the WHO Commission

The newly formed WHO Commission on Social Connection aims to delve into the central role of social connections in enhancing health for people of all ages. The commission’s objective is to analyze the multifaceted dimensions of social connection, both individually and collectively, to identify and support those most isolated in society.

In a statement, Hamish Foster, the first study author and clinical research fellow at the University of Glasgow, stressed the need to assess various dimensions when tackling issues like loneliness and social isolation.

Recognizing the profound health and societal consequences of loneliness, the commission asserts its commitment to making substantial investments in rebuilding the social fabric of society, akin to efforts addressing other global health concerns such as tobacco use, obesity, and addiction.

Conclusion: A Call to Rebuild Social Connections

The WHO’s declaration underscores the critical need for societal recognition of loneliness as a health crisis, paralleling well-established risks like smoking. As the Commission on Social Connection embarks on its three-year mission, it aims to provide insights and solutions to address this pressing global issue, advocating for investments that prioritize rebuilding the social fabric of society.

The urgency of this matter necessitates a collective effort to mitigate the profound health and societal consequences associated with loneliness.

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