Patient wellness: Loneliness ​is a serious health problem

  • Doctors are increasingly worried about loneliness.
  • Vivek Murthy, a former surgeon-general of the United States, called loneliness an epidemic, likening its impact on health to obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
  • A study found that in America people always or often feel lonely.
  • A study published in 2010 using this scale estimated that 35% of Americans over 45 were lonely.

According to WebMD “the social media paradox”: Pop psychologists have coined the term to describe how social media have allowed us to become more connected to other people than at any time in history — and yet many Americans report feeling more lonely and isolated than ever before”.

A survey, conducted by the health insurer Cigna, found widespread loneliness, with nearly half of Americans reporting they feel alone, isolated, or left out at least some of the time. The nation’s 75 million millennials (ages 23-37) and Generation Z adults (18-22) are lonelier than any other U.S. demographic and report being in worse health than older generations.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. My best friend of 45 years died, in no small part, due to loneliness. He had a bad experience as a caregiver taking care of his dad and after his dad passed away he was all alone. All of his friends had moved away, gotten married and were trying to navigate their own lives. I wound up calling him every day from California, where I lived at the time and tried to convince him to take better care of himself and his diabetes but he too often overlooked how to control his disease and had a diabetic stroke that put him in a nursing home where he passed away a short time later.

What can doctors do about loneliness?

While the debate around overall patient wellness and HCP’s continues people are in real pain. It’s not a pain that is treatable with a pill or injection, it’s far worse and can lead to serious health problems and add to our rising healthcare costs.

The AMA could tackle this issue by bringing the issue of loneliness to the attention of insurers but in order for insurers to approach this health problem, they need to a cost-benefit analysis.

Pharma and loneliness?

We assume, in most DTC, that people are going to become aware of signs of health issues and do more research online but what about the people who “don’t care” because they are in isolation? How can we reach caregivers and friends who are in a position to help but lack the tools to reach out and help people that are lonely?

Should DTC include information on helping people who, because they are lonely, may not care about medical issues? What’s the advantage, for example, to inform caregivers and friends of a new product for diabetes that can help control blood sugar for longer periods?

I know, there is a fine line between reaching out and helping someone and intruding in their private space but even with social media and our iPhones how many people really have close friends who really care about them?

At a minimum pharma needs to conduct some research to better understand how loneliness can impact health decisions and lead to chronic health issues and higher healthcare costs. This is especially true for Millennials who are putting off marriage and even intimate relationships. We need more people who care about us and are willing to say “what can I do to help” or “I found this online and thought you might be interested”

Ignoring the problem is not an option.