WHO declares loneliness as a pressing global health threat

The mortality effect of loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, says the world organisation

November 17, 2023 03:45 am | Updated November 18, 2023 12:28 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

Representational image.

Representational image. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

  Loneliness has been declared as a pressing global health threat with a mortality effect equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

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The world organisation has now launched an international commission on the problem — led by U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, and the African Union youth envoy, Chido Mpemba — of 11 advocates and government ministers, including Ralph Regenvanu, Minister for Climate Change Adaptation in Vanuatu, and Ayuko Kato, Minister in-charge of measures for loneliness and isolation in Japan.

The new commission on social connection aims to address loneliness as a pressing health threat, promote social connection as a priority and accelerate the scaling up of solutions in countries of all incomes.

“Running for three years, it will analyse the central role social connection plays in improving health for people of all ages and outline solutions to build social connections at scale,” noted a release issued by the WHO.

Serious consequences

“High rates of social isolation and loneliness around the world have serious consequences for health and well-being. People without enough strong social connections are at higher risk of stroke, anxiety, dementia, depression, suicide and more,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “This WHO Commission will help establish social connection as a global health priority and share the most promising interventions.”

Dr. Murthy added that while loneliness is often seen as a problem for developed countries the rates of one in four older people experiencing social isolation are similar in all regions of the world.

The health risks are as bad as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than those associated with obesity and physical inactivity, said Dr. Murthy, adding that these issues don’t affect one country. “Loneliness is an underappreciated public health threat,” he warned.

According to the WHO, in older adults, loneliness is associated with a 50% increased risk of developing dementia and a 30% increased risk of coronary artery disease or stroke. Additionally, between 5% and 15% of adolescents are lonely, according to research findings. However, these figures are likely to be underestimations, said the WHO.

“Loneliness transcends borders and is becoming a global public health concern affecting every facet of health, wellbeing and development,” said Mr. Mpemba. “Social isolation knows no age or boundaries.”

He added that young people experiencing loneliness at school are more likely to drop out of university. It can also lead to poorer economic outcomes; feeling disconnected and unsupported in a job can lead to poorer job satisfaction and performance.

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