On Nov. 15, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared loneliness a global public health issue and established a new Social Connections Committee (CSC) to address this "urgent health threat." The primary goal of the CSC is to promote the recognition of loneliness as a global public health priority and to provide resources to develop evidence-based solutions for worldwide implementation.
The committee, led by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and African Union Youth Envoy Chido Mpemba, currently consists of 11 ministers, thought leaders, and advocates from various countries, including Japan's minister responsible for loneliness and isolation measures, Ayuko Kato, and ministers from the U.S., Sweden, Chile, and Morocco. The committee may expand its membership in the future.
According to a WHO press release, the committee will operate for three years (2024-2026), with its first leadership meeting scheduled for Dec. 6-8. One of the committee's first major outputs will be a flagship report to be published midway through the three-year initiative.
Solutions could range from broad national policies to individual psychological interventions. The WHO has mapped out evidence that now needs to be analyzed to provide clear guidance to leaders and practitioners on the best methods to improve social connections.
Social isolation and loneliness are widespread issues. Contrary to the common perception that isolation and loneliness primarily affect the elderly in developed countries, people of all ages and regions globally are affected. In fact, the prevalence in low- and middle-income countries is comparable to or even higher than in high-income countries.
The WHO report conservatively estimates that a quarter of the elderly globally feel socially isolated, with the highest proportion in the Eastern Mediterranean region at 46.1%. Among adolescents, 5%-15% experience loneliness, with the highest rates in the Eastern Mediterranean region at 14.4%, followed by Africa at 12.7%, and the lowest in Europe at 5.3%.
U.S. Surgeon General Murthy indicated that the health risks of loneliness are as severe as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, more serious than risks associated with obesity and lack of physical activity. The impact of loneliness is not limited to any one country but is an underestimated global public health threat.
Although social isolation and loneliness have severe impacts on human health and lifespan, they have not been fully recognized. Studies show that people lacking social connections face a higher risk of early death. Social isolation and loneliness are also linked to anxiety, depression, suicide, and dementia and may increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases and stroke.
For the elderly, loneliness can increase the risk of developing dementia by 50% and coronary artery disease or stroke by 30%. However, it also disrupts the lives of young people. Social disconnection can lead to poorer educational outcomes, such as a higher likelihood of dropping out of college for those who experience loneliness in high school. It can also lead to worse economic outcomes, with feelings of isolation at work potentially leading to decreased job satisfaction and performance.
Mpemba from the African Union noted that in Africa, where there is a higher proportion of young people, challenges in peace, security, and the climate crisis, along with high unemployment rates, are exacerbating social isolation.
She emphasized the importance of redefining the narrative around loneliness, especially for vulnerable groups excluded by the digital divide. Loneliness transcends age and national boundaries and is becoming a global public health issue affecting health, well-being, and development.
Furthermore, loneliness not only harms individuals but also negatively impacts entire communities and societies. Studies indicate that a community's safety, prosperity, and effective governance largely depend on the quality of social connections within it.
Given the profound impact of loneliness and social isolation on health and society, the U.S. Surgeon General stated that there is an obligation to invest adequately in addressing it, just as with other global health issues like smoking and drug abuse, and to commit to finding solutions for the problem of loneliness.