Not only does our individual and societal sanity depend on connection; so does our physical health. Because we are biopsychosocial creatures, the rising loneliness epidemic in Western culture is much more than just a psychological phenomenon: it is a public health crisis.
A preeminent scholar of loneliness, the late neuroscientist John Cacioppo and his colleague and spouse, Stephania Cacioppo, published a letter in the Lancet only a month before his death in 2018. "Imagine," they wrote, "a condition that makes a person irritable, depressed, and self-centered, and is associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality. Imagine too that in industrialized countries around a third of people are affected by this condition, with one person in 12 affected severely, and that these proportions are increasing. Income, education, sex, and ethnicity are not protective, and the condition is contagious. The effects of the condition are not attributable to some peculiarity of the character of a subset of individuals, they are a result of the condition affecting ordinary people. Such a condition exists — loneliness."
We now know without doubt that chronic loneliness is associated with an elevated risk of illness and early death. It has been shown to increase mortality from cancer and other diseases and has been compared to the harm of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. According to research presented at the American Psychological Association's annual convention in 2015, the loneliness epidemic is a public health risk at least as great as the burgeoning rates of obesity.
Loneliness, the researcher Steven Cole told me, can impair genetic functioning. And no wonder: even in parrots isolation impairs DNA repair by shortening chromosome-protecting telomeres. Social isolation inhibits the immune system, promotes inflammation, agitates the stress apparatus, and increases the risk of death from heart disease and strokes. Here I am referring to social isolation in the pre COVID-19 sense, though the pandemic has grievously exacerbated the problem, at great cost to the well-being of many.