WHO declares loneliness a global health threat
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared loneliness an urgent global health threat, equating its risks to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is responding by setting up an international working group that will spend the next three years trying to address this issue.
The committee is being led by Dr Vivek Murthy, the USA’s Surgeon General, and Chido Mpemba, the Youth Envoy of the African Union.
Its members include activists and 11 ministers, among them Ralph Regenvanu, Minister for Climate Change in Vanuatu, and Ayuko Kato, the minister responsible for measures addressing loneliness and social isolation in Japan.
The establishment of the working group comes in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought economic and social activities to a standstill, increasing levels of loneliness and heightening awareness of the significance of this issue.
"Loneliness is becoming a global public health concern with implications for all aspects of health, well-being, and development. Social isolation knows no age or boundaries. The health risks associated with loneliness are as severe as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and are greater than the risks associated with obesity and physical inactivity. The social phenomenon of loneliness has no age limit or boundaries,” Dr Murthy said.
In the elderly, loneliness has been associated with a 50% increased risk of developing cognitive decline and is thought to increase the risk of heart disease or stroke by 30%. Loneliness also impacts the lives of young individuals.
A study conducted in 2022 indicates that 5 to 15% of teenagers experience loneliness but this could be an underestimation. In Africa, adolescents face loneliness at a rate of 12.7%, compared to 5.3% in Europe.
Young people experiencing loneliness at school tend to be less likely to pursue a university education than the general population. Loneliness also leads to poorer economic outcomes and feelings of alienation, with a lack of support in the workplace likely to cause job satisfaction and performance to deteriorate.