Feeling lonely? You’re not alone in that!
That old Hank Williams song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” evokes the wistful sadness of loneliness that everyone feels at times. But this emotion is far more prevalent — and potentially detrimental to heart health — than most people recognize.
Earlier this year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an 82-page advisory about the country’s epidemic of loneliness, which he called an underappreciated health crisis. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of adults reported feeling lonely.
Being lonely or socially isolated has been linked to a 29% higher risk of heart disease and a 32% higher risk of stroke. In terms of mortality, the repercussions are similar to smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day — and are even greater than the risks associated with obesity and physical inactivity, according to the report.
The underlying mechanism is believed to be similar to what happens when people feel depressed or stressed. Nervous system changes activate hormones that boost blood pressure and trigger an outpouring of inflammatory substances in the blood that lead to a buildup of fatty plaque inside arteries.
Social connections are key
Social isolation and loneliness certainly increased during the pandemic, but this trend had a small silver lining: a heightened awareness and appreciation of the importance of human connection.
“Covid’s consequences sharpened our focus on loneliness, and the isolation we felt was a reminder of how precious it is to see people in person,” said Dr. Jacqueline Olds, a psychiatrist at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital and the co-author of two books on loneliness.
Not only did people long to see their friends and families, but they also missed small everyday interactions with neighbors, their mail carrier, and people at their local coffee shop.
Loneliness tends to be more common in older people, especially those who are widowed or divorced. The winter holidays sometimes heighten feelings of loneliness, Dr. Olds noted.
“People often imagine idealized holiday scenes with lots of happy faces around the table,” she said. Seeing photos on social media sites of people having fun can also exacerbate feelings of isolation. But keep in mind that these curated images aren’t the everyday reality for most people.
Simple steps to take
Initiating and keeping social plans can be challenging, especially if you live alone, Dr. Olds acknowledged. “It’s true that it’s much harder to do things by yourself, but it’s not impossible,” she said.
Maybe you feel a little shy or anxious, or you’re concerned about issues like coping with unpredictable weather, traffic or staying out too late. Try to push yourself outside your comfort zone, and know that you’ll be fine if you get a little wet in the rain or don’t wear the right shoes, she added.
Start by reconnecting with an old friend or acquaintance, Dr. Olds suggested. Spending time with familiar people can shore up your social skills, which can help you feel more confident about creating new connections.
Say yes to social invitations, and make sure to take turns initiating and following through with plans to get together with people.
Ways to make new friends
Being around people who have similar interests is a good way to make new friends since you already have something in common. Look online or at your local library for classes, in-person clubs, or volunteer opportunities that match your interests — or maybe something new you’d like to try.
One helpful source is Meetup, an online social community that coordinates both in-person and virtual activities of all kinds, including many targeted to seniors (see meetup.com).
There are hundreds of meetup groups, including those focused on outdoor activities (for example, hiking, canoeing or mini-golf) or hobbies (photography, Vietnamese cooking, motorcycle riding, music), as well as groups that meet to discuss books, movies or just share a meal.
Volunteering in your local community is another nice way to connect with new people, with the added potential bonus of giving you a sense of purpose and satisfaction.
Volunteer Match (volunteermatch.org) connects people with local volunteer opportunities that suit their interests and expertise, with such choices as fighting climate change, tutoring children, assisting immigrants and refugees, working with computers and technology, and numerous others.
Having a pet — especially a dog — can give you company at home, and also help you meet people when you’re out on walks or at the dog park. Animal lovers might also consider volunteering at an animal shelter or joining a bird-watching group.
© 2023 by Harvard University