The author of the following article in today's New York Times − which I have excerpted here − is Dhruv Khullar, M.D., a resident physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital with interests in health policy, economics, and journalism. He is a contributor at the New York Times and writes regularly for both mainstream and academic publications, exploring evolving trends in medicine and health care. He graduated with honors from Yale University (B.A. in Biology), and earned his medical degree (M.D.) at the Yale School of Medicine. He also received a Masters in Public Policy (M.P.P.) from the Harvard Kennedy School, where he was a fellow at the Center for Public Leadership. His work has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Atlantic, Slate, Politico, and Scientific American. For the full article, go to
Social isolation is a growing epidemic — one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.
About one-third of Americans older than 65 now live alone, and half of those over 85 do. People in poorer health — especially those with mood disorders like anxiety and depression — are more likely to feel lonely. Those without a college education are the least likely to have someone they can talk to about important personal matters.
A wave of new research suggests social separation is bad for us. Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.
Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age.
Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions. These effects start early: Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.
The evidence on social isolation is clear. What to do about it is less so.
Loneliness is an especially tricky problem because accepting and declaring our loneliness carries profound stigma. Admitting we’re lonely can feel as if we’re admitting we’ve failed in life’s most fundamental domains: belonging, love, attachment. It attacks our basic instincts to save face, and makes it hard to ask for help.
I see this most acutely during the holidays when I care for hospitalized patients, some connected to I.V. poles in barren rooms devoid of family or friends — their aloneness amplified by cheerful Christmas movies playing on wall-mounted televisions. And hospitalized or not, many people report feeling lonelier, more depressed and less satisfied with life during the holiday season...
A great paradox of our hyper-connected digital age is that we seem to be drifting apart. Increasingly, however, research confirms our deepest intuition: Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being. It’s up to all of us — doctors, patients, neighborhoods and communities — to maintain bonds where they’re fading, and create ones where they haven’t existed.