The Impact of Loneliness on Health: New WHO Commission Addresses the Global Public Health Concern of Social Isolation

As the world slowly recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, the impacts of the virus continue to exacerbate physical and mental health issues.

Loneliness has been classified as an “urgent health threat” by the World Health Organization, with risks as serious as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. According to African Union Youth Envoy Chido Mbemba, loneliness is no longer just a personal problem, but a global public health concern that affects every facet of health, well-being, and development. This week, Mbemba and US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy were appointed to lead the WHO’s newly formed International Commission on Social Communication, a group consisting of 11 prominent health advocates and policymakers. Their objective is to combat the rapid spread of isolation, a condition that has escalated during the Covid-19 pandemic due to lockdown measures.

Data from the WHO reveals that one in four elderly individuals and 5-15% of adolescents suffer from social isolation and loneliness. The establishment of the new WHO committee follows a recent study conducted by the University of Glasgow, which found that failing to communicate with friends or family may increase the risk of premature death by 39%. The study, published in the journal BMC Medicine last week, tracked about 458,000 middle-aged participants over roughly 12 years, observing approximately 33,000 deaths during the follow-up period. The results showed that close interactions, such as monthly communication with friends and family, offer significant benefits, while superficial interactions do not seem to reduce the risk of early death.

The new WHO panel intends to “analyze the central role that social connectivity plays in improving the health of people of all ages and identify solutions for building social connections at scale.” According to Dr. Murthy, the profound health and societal consequences of loneliness and isolation require the same level of investment as other global health concerns such as tobacco use, obesity, and addiction crises.

Research has indicated that persistent loneliness can lead to anxiety, depression, poor immune function, cardiovascular issues, and even brain shrinkage. In a study, researchers found that individuals with less social interaction had smaller temporal lobes, occipital lobes, cingulum, hippocampus, and amygdala.

Source: New York Post

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