Your Health Checkup: Loneliness Is as Deadly as Smoking

COVID, social media, and other factors have led to an increase in loneliness; the solutions are complex and individual.


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“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

Order Dr. Zipes’ books, Ari’s Spoon, a new novel, as well as Bear’s Promise and Damn the Naysayers, A Doctor’s Memoir. Check out his website at

Medicine has made significant strides in many areas that have helped people live longer and happier, more fulfilling lives. For example, in the last 50 years, new diagnostic and therapeutic innovations have reduced mortality from heart disease by more than 60 percent and from strokes by more than 75 percent.

Despite these accomplishments, much remains to be done. In addition to gun violence, climate change, COVID, political polarization, immigration reform, and other existential threats, we need to confront high rates of uninsured and underinsured patients, increasing health care costs, and major disparities in health care outcomes that result from social inequities.

Some problems and solutions are right at hand if we only pay attention. One example is loneliness. People feel lonely when the quality and/or quantity of their social relationships fail to meet their needs. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says that loneliness poses health risks as deadly as smoking ¾ of a pack of cigarettes daily, costs the health industry billions of dollars annually, and affects as many as half of U.S. adults. Murthy contends that loneliness increases the risk of premature death by nearly 30 percent, while those with poor social relationships also suffer a greater risk of stroke, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and dementia.

Causes are multifold and include the social isolation inflicted by the COVID epidemic that prompted widespread school and workplace closures and home isolation, reduced engagement in religious and community organizations, and decreased family and other social interactions. We spend only 20 minutes a day in person with friends, compared with three times that amount two decades ago, according to the surgeon general’s report.

Social media plays a major contributing role in increased loneliness, with those using apps like Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram for two hours or longer each day feeling more isolated than those who spend less than a half hour daily. I shudder each time I witness a family of parents and children having dinner at a restaurant with every member buried deep into a cell phone rather than talking to each other.

Solutions for loneliness are complex and individual. Having robust social support, including someone or something to love and be loved by, helps, as does increased face-to-face personal interactions. Pets, especially dogs, provide companionship that reduces loneliness, anxiety, and feelings of depression. Owning a dog can foster interaction with other people, stimulate activity (e.g., walking the dog), and lead to improved mental and physical health.

Social connections are necessary and beneficial, both mentally and physically. In the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a long-term study of human relationships, Robert Waldinger found that those people with the most satisfying relationships were the happiest — not from money or fame or professional accomplishments, but from being close to another person, being able to count on that individual for love and support.

My advice is to drop the cell phone and reach out to a friend, family member, business associate, or colleague and establish or re-establish a personal relationship! Think of the benefits, not just to that person, but to you as well. Happiness is the essence of life, and healthy social relationships provide the pillars of that happiness.

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  1. The opening picture suggests these 8 people are candidates for what this not-so-shocking article reveals. Totally disengaged from everything but that heroin-type addiction phone. They might as well all be eating there alone, picking up food to take home to eat alone, or each with the drive-thru, alone.

    What a sad, forlorn group they are, replicated millions of times every day. This includes walking around in a hypnotic stupor where (in daylight) the screen can’t really be seen anyway, damaging their eyes. These people likely can’t carry on any kinds of real conversations if they tried. Probably can’t even sign their own names, where cursive is hieroglyphics to them.

    “Oh no! Mom, Dad, this DMV lady is asking ME to SIGN my name for my driver’s license, and won’t let YOU do it. She said what I did is called “scribble” and isn’t the cursive signature required. Mom, what’s “scribble”, or this “cursive” thing? Make her stop! Make her give me an award for just showing up here, like when I was in school!”


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