U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy has announced new legislation aimed at tackling a growing health hazard among Americans — loneliness.
“It’s a real epidemic in this country that has gone on largely without being talked about,” Murphy said at a press conference Friday at the YMCA of Greater Hartford.
“Everybody has been lonely at some point in their life, but we have never had this many Americans reporting intense chronic feelings of loneliness and aloneness as we do today. It is particularly acute with our young people. You have incredible spikes in teenagers who report feeling alone and lonely and as a result showing signs of depression and often signs of self harm. But it’s also not just exclusive to kids. More adults are also reporting being lonely.”
According to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the U.S. is dealing with a loneliness epidemic that is threatening widespread physical and mental health consequences. Health risks associated with chronic loneliness include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.
Additionally, “lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60%,” according to a report from the surgeon general issued earlier this year.
According to the same report, the number of close friendships Americans have on average has declined over the last several decades.
“Almost half of Americans or 49% in 2021, reported having three or fewer friends — only about a quarter or 27% reported the same in 1990. In 1960, single-person households accounted for only 13% of all U.S. households. In 2022, that number more than doubled, to 29% of all households.”
In addition, more than “1 in 3 adults aged 45 and older feel lonely” in the United States, according to a CDC report.
In order to the reverse this trend, Murphy has introduced the National Strategy for Social Connection Act, which would create an Office of Social Connection Policy within the White House, which would facilitate work between federal agencies and develop strategies to increase social connection. The legislation would grant the CDC $5 million from 2024 through 2029 to conduct and support research on loneliness and social connection.
Murphy announced the legislation at the Wilson-Gray YMCA Youth & Family Center in Hartford where he touted the work of the YMCA’s commitment to community and its importance as a center for social connection.
“Loneliness is one of the most serious, misunderstood problems facing America today. It may not sound like a problem government should care about, but I believe it’s irresponsible for policymakers to continue ignoring this epidemic. Loneliness leads to worse health outcomes and breeds political instability,” Murphy said.
Murphy, who has been an outspoken advocate on the issue, including writing op-eds and speaking about loneliness on the Senate floor, was joined at the press conference by Harold Sparrow, president of the YMCA of Greater Hartford, Erin Leavitt-Smith, director of long-term services and supports for the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, Deb Bibbins, founder of the nonprofit For All Ages, and Luis Perez, president and CEO of Mental Health Connecticut.
“We understand the negative impacts of social isolation,” Leavitt-Smith said. “What we know is that it can lead to increased risk of hospitalization which isolates people even further from their families, friends and community.”
People experiencing social isolation have a 57% increased risk of emergency department visits, decreased cognitive functioning, and increased rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, she said. Feelings of social isolation can lead to a disruption of sleep that increases risks of heart disease and stroke.
“As humans we are social beings and authentic social connection provides the foundation for our mental and physical health,” Bibbins said. “These positive social connections give us a powerful sense of belonging that improves our resiliency. When we feel more connected, we are better able to deal with life’s challenges.”
Bibbins started a nonprofit in 2021 aimed at ending loneliness, reducing ageism, and improving mental, physical, and social health for people of all ages. The organization has hosted several events engaging older adults with young people to foster social connection.
Murphy said the act has received bipartisan support and he hopes that holding these conversations will help de-stigmatize the issue.
“I have partners in this work, I’m not doing this alone,” Murphy said. “Other members of the Senate have been working with me on these issues. U.S. Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota has been a very strong voice. I’ve begun to have conversations with my Republican colleagues and this can be a conversation to involve Democrats and Republicans. I think we will get bipartisan support for this initiative.”