In an effort to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, most states are now practicing social distancing, which means workplaces, schools, religious gatherings, gyms, community programs and even therapy groups have shut down.

Social distancing makes sense when trying to avoid a rapidly spreading communicable disease, but what about the impacts this forced isolation will have on all aspects of individual health?

Aside from the serious and devastating effect this could have on mental and emotional health, loneliness is bad for our physical health as well.

The Red Cross recently deemed loneliness a “health epidemic,” and while not as publicized as the spread of COVID-19, it has sobering health implications of its own. Over the past 20 years, individuals who identified themselves as “extremely lonely” have doubled in number. 

Now with many social support systems removed, Utahns could find themselves lonelier than ever.

The American Psychological Association reports that loneliness leads to “fight or flight stress signaling, which negatively affect the immune and cardiovascular systems.” WebMD also states that loneliness has startling consequences — did you know chronic loneliness reduces life expectancy as much as smoking 15 cigarettes per day? And more than obesity or heart disease? 

Even before COVID-19 caused mass shutdowns, governments across the world were beginning to consider loneliness a serious health crisis.

In Japan, so many people die alone in their apartments that there has been an entire specialty clean-up industry created to make homes liveable — and sellable — after dead bodies inside them have gone undiscovered for months.

In several European countries, almost half of all households are made up of one person. Germany and the United Kingdom have recently created new government positions, “Minister/Commissioner of Loneliness,” to specifically address this growing societal problem.

Health conscious Utahns should ask themselves what kinds of initiatives could address this crisis. 

We tend to think of the elderly as a particularly vulnerable demographic when it comes to loneliness. According to the United Health Foundation, Utah is actually ranked the best state in the country in terms of preventing elderly isolation, but with the COVID-19 lockdowns, senior citizens face more loneliness than ever.

While the coronavirus might not be as dangerous to younger demographics, loneliness might be more so. 

Utah has the highest percentage of millennials of any state. They make up 23% of the population.

National reports show that millennials and Gen Z adults are the loneliest group in history. Despite being so connected via technology, research finds that this group reports feeling as if “no one knows them well, they lack companionship, their relationships aren’t meaningful and they are isolated from others.”  About 1 in 5 people in this age range say they have no friends, while an even larger number say they have no close friends.

Experts aren’t sure why this is happening, but they have found some effective ways to combat it. 

Face-to-face interactions are the best remedy. When people who suffer with loneliness become an accepted member of a support, volunteer, educational, faith-based or civic group that meets at least once per week, they report feeling less lonely on average.

With social distancing in place, almost all these resources are gone now.

View Comments

Many states have restrictions on gatherings, and more will shortly. It is safe to expect that areas that have disbanded face-to-face support systems will see an increase in loneliness. This is dangerous, but here in Utah it might be even more so.

If Utah has the highest percentage of millennials, and millennials are the loneliest generation, Utah could easily become the loneliest state. 

If our goal is health for all, we should be addressing this. Saying “wash your hands” has become just as common a phrase as “have a good day,” but maybe we should be saying “reach out in any way you can” just as often.

Katie Jarvis is an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.