A fascinating recent article in The New Republic reviewed a body of new science documenting the pernicious physiological effects of loneliness.
Researchers have shown that loneliness—more formally, the want of intimacy—exacerbates a host of ailments, including Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer. The share of Americans who report “not feeling close to people” at any given time is 30 percent and growing, and deemed by some a social health crisis.
Should public policy researchers and practitioners care about something as intangible and inaccessible as loneliness? I’ll give you three reasons why I think we should.
First, some background… Feeling lonely actually sends misleading hormonal signals that physically change the molecular structure of the brain. According to the article, this “wrenches a whole slew” of bodily systems out of whack, causing loneliness to be seen by some as a risk factor for death as great as smoking.
Who tends to be affected by loneliness, according to this research? Women more than men, blacks more than whites, the less-educated, the unemployed, the retired, anyone different. In other words, many of the same people affected by today’s long-term unemployment and wealth disparities, persistent poverty, and isolation. If loneliness exacerbates these ills, it will further diminish people’s ability to engage in economically and socially valuable and productive activities, which in turn could exacerbate loneliness.
Three reasons why loneliness should be a public policy concern:
Loneliness contributes to a vicious economic cycle in which economically isolated people are further removed from the system, costing productivity and draining resources from social and health systems.
Too often we quantify how people are struggling by using impersonal numbers like poverty statistics, the unemployment rate, and the labor force participation rate. New research on loneliness reinforces the valuable lesson that suffering has a real, human, emotional face.
Scientific evidence of how loneliness links mental, physical, and economic well-being reminds us of the interdisciplinary nature of our country’s social problems and validates policy that draws on an inclusive range of research, methods, and approaches.
Loneliness may not be the most acute or immediate public policy concern of our day, but considering the role it and other little-talked-about ailments play in the socioeconomic realm can only make our public policy more thoughtful, robust, and responsive.
Illustration by Daniel Wolfe, Urban Institute