A public health epidemic is impacting half of Americans: loneliness.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said Tuesday that action needs to be taken immediately to save Americans from the health risks that come from lack of human connection.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the framework for the surgeon general’s approach for his “National Strategy to Advance Social Connection.”

“Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight — one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled and more productive lives,” said Murthy. 

“Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity and substance use disorders. Together, we can build a country that’s healthier, more resilient, less lonely, and more connected.”

The issue of people’s health in terms of loneliness was impacted in devastating ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID has poured fuel on a fire that was already burning. It’s exacerbated loneliness and isolation,” Murthy said in an interview with PBS.

Social gatherings have decreased throughout the last decade. People are not taking time for recreational activities or community gatherings like they used to.

“We have seen that technology has fundamentally changed how we interact with one another and how we communicate with one another and, unfortunately, has often replaced what used to be rich in-person connections with online connections, which often are of lower quality,” he added.

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Increased loneliness in people’s lives puts them at greater risk for mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, but less obvious is the direct correlation isolation has to physical diseases such as heart disease, dementia and stroke, according to an American Psychologist report.

“The risk of premature death posed by social disconnection is similar to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than obesity and physical inactivity,” per The Washington Post. The article noted that people who maintain a healthy number of social connections live longer than those who don’t.

The U.S. surgeon general is calling on the federal government to take this knowledge seriously and fund additional research on the effects of loneliness.

He also commented in his PBS interview on the social costs that come from lack of social connection: “We know that communities that are more connected have lower levels of violence. They have higher economic prosperity. They’re more resilient in the face of adversity, and they’re more protected against division and polarization. These are all challenges that we’re struggling with today.”

Murthy’s call to action is to give priority to the relationships we have in our lives and to nurture and maintain them. By doing so, he said that Americans will live longer and healthier lives than they would without them.