AMNA NAWAZ: The U.S. surgeon general today declared a new public health epidemic in America: loneliness.
A new report from his office finds loneliness can have profound effects on mental health, as well as heart disease, stroke and dementia.
It tracks a decline in social connections, and links all of this to billions of dollars in health care costs.
Dr. Vivek Murthy is the U.S. surgeon general.
And he joins me now.
Dr. Murthy, welcome back to the "NewsHour."
Thanks for joining us.
DR. VIVEK MURTHY, U.S.
Surgeon General: Thanks so much, Amna, for having me.
AMNA NAWAZ: So your declaration and this report very clearly link loneliness to matters of life or death, to put it plainly.
This one number stuck out to me.
It found social isolation increases the risk of premature mortality by nearly 30 percent.
How and why did you come to focus on this topic?
DR. VIVEK MURTHY: Well, I had certainly had firsthand experience with loneliness in my own life, and also in my care of patients, where I found so often people come into the hospital for one condition or another, but there was loneliness lurking in the background.
But it was only when I began my tenure as surgeon general that I started to realize, in talking to people across the country, that loneliness was extraordinarily common.
In fact, we are now finding that one in two adults report measurable levels of loneliness.
And it turns out that young people are most affected than any other group.
And here's why this is so concerning.
It's because we have realized that loneliness is more than just a bad feeling.
It has real consequences for our mental and physical health.
It increases our risk of depression, anxiety and suicide.
But social disconnection also raises the risk of heart disease and dementia and premature death on levels on par with smoking daily and even greater than the risks that we see associated with obesity.
So, however you look at it, loneliness and isolation are public health concerns that we have to prioritize.
AMNA NAWAZ: We see, according to your numbers, that things were already trending this way, that it was then an accelerated during the pandemic.
In fact, one of the numbers you highlight was, between 2003 and 2020, social engagement with friends decreased from 60 minutes a day in 2003 to just 20 minutes a day in 2020.
Before COVID, how do you see that?
What was driving that trend?
DR. VIVEK MURTHY: Well, there are a number of factors.
And I'm glad you mentioned COVID, because COVID has poured fuel on a fire that was already burning.
It's exacerbated loneliness and isolation.
But this has been building, Amna, for decades.
We have in fact seen a decrease in participation in community organizations, in faith organizations and recreational leagues over several decades.
We have seen that technology has fundamentally changed how we interact with one another and how we communicate with one another and, unfortunately, has often replaced what used to be rich in-person connections with online connections, which often are of lower quality.
And, finally, we see that people are just experiencing tremendous change in their lives.
They're moving more.
They're changing jobs more often.
And that can disrupt a lot of our social relationships.
It's not that these trends are necessarily bad, in and of themselves.
But what we have to do now in modern life is intentionally build in the infrastructure we need for connection in our individual lives, as well as in our communities.
AMNA NAWAZ: Coming out of the pandemic, I think a lot of people made choices that they thought were good for their well-being and their mental health, whittling down the number of friends that you see to a core group or working from home more frequently, having that flexibility in your life.
It seems like you're saying there could be a long-term negative side to some of those choices.
I mean, how do we fix that?
DR. VIVEK MURTHY: Well, it turns out that the choices you make about friendships are critical here, because it's not just having people around you or having relationships.
It's having healthy relationships.
So, some people during the pandemic found themselves focusing more on the relationships that really sustain them.
And that's a good thing.
But other people found themselves paring back on all of their social interactions, and that actually can be harmful.
So, the quality piece really matters.
And one of the worries I have on that, as we think about the various factors that are driving this, is, I think for too many people, especially for too many of our young people, the experience of social media has highlighted the importance of quantity of connection over quality of connection.
And we know that that's not a recipe for greater connection.
But, finally, just keep in mind this.
As big as this problem can seem, and as much as there is to do about it - - and we lay out in the advisory I just issued today on this subject a framework for a national strategy to address loneliness.
The key is to remember there are individuals steps that we can take in our own lives today that will make a difference, just spending 15 minutes a day with people we care about, making sure that we're fully present when we're interacting with others, and we're not distracted by technology, looking for ways to help other people, neighbors and co-workers, recognizing that small acts of service can be powerful in making us feel more connected with one another.
These are the small steps that can make a big difference in how connected we feel.
AMNA NAWAZ: You mentioned social media.
And I know, previously, you have talked about your concern about young people, in particular, using social media.
So, when you look at these kinds of state bans we're seeing now, for example, Utah being the very first to come out and say that anyone under 18 is banned from social media unless they explicitly have parental permission, how do you view those?
Are those a good idea?
DR. VIVEK MURTHY: Well, I certainly think it's important and that we have these conversations and explore solutions to how to make social media safer for kids, because the truth is, more than a decade has passed where kids have been using social media in significant numbers.
And we haven't had adequate safety standards to ensure that our children are not exposed to harmful content, that their use of social media isn't so excessive that it robs them of their sleep and their time in person with others.
In fact, all of that is happening right now, along with the fact that social media for many young people is eroding their own self-esteem, because they're in this field where they are comparing themselves constantly to other people at rates that we have never experienced.
So, the bottom line is, we need to have this conversation about how to make social media safer.
And while there are different strategies that are being explored right now, I think the conversation is not only important.
I think it's welcomed by so many parents out there -- and I say this as a parent myself -- who are looking at what's happening and are saying, this is too hard for a single parent to manage on their own.
We need to do something as a society to make these platforms safer for our kids.
AMNA NAWAZ: You mentioned on the Web site there there's recommendations for individuals, for schools, for communities, and so on.
People can go to HHS.gov for more.
But there's no calls for federal funding or any kind of federal action this.
Is there some kind of government program or government action that could address this epidemic?
DR. VIVEK MURTHY: Absolutely.
And, in fact, we lay out some steps that policymakers can take here to address the crisis of loneliness and isolation.
They include funding more research in this area, so we understand who is most at risk and what solutions work, also extending more support to community organizations that can often be the lifeline of creating connection in our various towns and cities.
But they also include taking what we call a connection-in-all-policies approach to policymaking, which is to recognize that sometimes transportation policy, housing policy, education policy, sometimes, these have effects on our interactions with one another, on our ability to actually meet up and see people.
We see that with physical infrastructure all the time.
Understanding these consequences in the policymaking process is important.
We're used to thinking about financial costs with policy.
We have also got to assess social costs as well.
And the reason it is so important we do all of this work at an individual, government and community level is that social connection is really vital for our individual health, but also for the health of communities.
We know that communities that are more connected have lower levels of violence.
They have higher economic prosperity.
They're more resilient in the face of adversity, and they're more protected against division and polarization.
These are all challenges that we're struggling with today.
AMNA NAWAZ: That is the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, joining us tonight.
Dr. Murthy, thank you.
Good to talk to you.
DR. VIVEK MURTHY: Thanks so much, Amna.