As the coronavirus pandemic recedes into the background, the effects of a virus itself the epidemic continues to fuel mental and physical problems.
The World Health Organization has declared loneliness an “urgent health threat”, with risks as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
“[Loneliness] it transcends borders and is becoming a global public health concern, affecting every aspect of health, well-being and development,” African Union Youth Envoy Chido Mpemba told The Guardian this week.
Mpemba and US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy co-chair the newly formed WHO International Commission on Social Relations, a coalition of 11 leading health advocates and policymakers.
Their three-year mission is to combat the plague of isolation accelerated by lockdown measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In its announcement, the WHO claims that one in four older people suffer from social isolation, while 5-15% of adolescents experience loneliness.
The new WHO commission follows new research from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, which found that not being in contact with friends or family can increase the risk of early death by 39%.
About 458,000 middle-aged participants were followed for about 12 years, with about 33,000 deaths reported during the follow-up period.
The study, published last week in the journal BMC Medicine, found that connecting with friends and family at least once a month was highly valuable, while surface-level interactions did not appear to reduce the risk of premature death.
“When tackling issues such as loneliness and social isolation, we need to assess these different dimensions both individually and in combination if we are to identify and support those who are most isolated in society,” Hamish Foster, first author of the study and clinical research fellow at the University of Glasgow’s School of Health and Wellbeing, said in a statement.
For its part, the new WHO commission plans to “analyze the central role that social connections play in improving the health of people of all ages, and outline solutions for building social connections at scale.”
“Given the profound health and societal consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an obligation to make the same investments in rebuilding the social fabric of society as we have in tackling other global health problems such as tobacco use, obesity and addiction crisis,” Murthy said in a statement.
Studies show that constantly spending time on yourself carries the risk of anxiety, depression, poor immune function, cardiovascular problems and even brain shrinkage.
The temporal lobe, occipital lobe, cingulum, hippocampus and amygdala were found to be smaller in people who had less social interaction.