health care

Suffering in Silence: The Loneliness Crisis


By LUCY ROSE  MARCH 21, 2018

As a healthcare professional and public health advocate for my entire career, I pay attention to things like crowed subway trains during the flu season. I ride the terribly overcrowded trains quite often in NYC, and cringe at the thought of all of those viruses flying through the air with the sneezing, coughing, talking, and touching in the train. It’s no wonder I prefer walking whenever I can!

In spite of my fears about flu transmission, I often use the time on the train to wonder about my fellow riders’ stories. New York City is a city of 8 million people, and statistics tell us that over one-third of adults in the US are chronically lonely – meaning more than 2.6 million of them may suffer from this ongoing loneliness. What an irony. In the country’s most populated city, millions of people are lonely and severely hurting in countless ways. If the studies are correct, 3 out of every 10 people sharing a subway car with me each day are chronically lonely. And that is devastating – to them, to their families, and to our society.

Loneliness is a feeling, not a state of living. It is the emotional and physical pain caused by lack of meaningful connections that fills an individual’s unique needs. In other words, you can be lonely in a very crowded city, or even at a Thanksgiving table filled with family. A person can be lonely in a marriage, lonely at work, lonely literally in any situation if his/her need for meaningful connection is not being met.

Situational loneliness is part of the human make-up and is important to help us respond to crisis. But chronic loneliness causes a myriad of negative outcomes – both physical and emotional. And the costs are massive. As chronic loneliness causes a person to seek soothing behaviors to dull their pain, it can lead to addiction and sometimes, devastatingly, suicide. As chronic loneliness causes a person to release cortisol over time, it leads to inflammation, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even dementia. In fact, according to a recent meta-analysis, loneliness has the same negative impact on the human body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and increases mortality by 26%.

If statistics are also correct, as I look around at my fellow subway riders, 1 in 8 of the adults are alcoholics. Certainly not all alcoholism, nor the other devastating outcomes, is caused by loneliness. But loneliness is a significant cause. Imagine the heartache alcoholism causes the sufferers and their families. A number of riders on my train also suffer from other addictions - drugs, gambling, food, or any number of challenges. Some of them have heart disease, some have cancer, some have the beginnings of dementia. For all of those impacted by these outcomes of loneliness, the pain and often quiet suffering causes additional loneliness, triggering a vicious cycle of loneliness and negative outcomes that becomes progressively harder to break.

Though I don’t know their personal stories, I can only assume many of them are suffering in silence. And, their suffering impacts all of us. Those suffering from loneliness are less productive at work. They are not able to bring their most creative and problem-solving selves to the work place. And their physical and emotional suffering costs society billions of dollars in treatment costs. Whether or not we are personally lonely, we all pay the costs. And, the price is too high for all of us.

From educating our physicians on how to identify loneliness, to addressing the addiction crisis in more holistic ways, to exploring outcomes that help decrease the overall costs of health care – our health care system can be central in helping mitigate loneliness and change personal stories. While loneliness is a part of the human condition, it does not have to be the defining force for so many American lives.