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WHO declares loneliness a ‘global public health concern’

The World Health Organisation has declared loneliness a significant global health threat. A newly formed commission’s US surgeon says that the mental state is as detrimental to human health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Thred Media
2 min readNov 21, 2023

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We all know that loneliness is grim, but it appears we’ve been underestimating the toll solitude takes on all of us.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently constructed an international commission to delve into the science behind the mental state, which is bringing to head some surprising early results.

The team’s lead surgeon, Dr Vivek Murthy, has gone as far as to declare loneliness ‘a global health concern’ with higher detriment to human health than smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Murphy also states that its risks trump those of obesity and physical inactivity.

After a slew of previous studies went public highlighting the potential correlation between loneliness and an increased likelihood of dementia — not to mention brain shrinkage — the WHO brought 11 leading international experts together to form a comprehensive research cohort which will continue working for three years.

The latest data suggests that in older adults, loneliness is associated with a 50% higher chance of developing dementia and a 30% greater risk of incident related to coronary artery disease or stroke.

These issues don’t affect one country… [loneliness] is an underappreciated public health threat,’ Murphy added.

While often the West is used as the barometer to determine levels of loneliness globally, with major factors like cost of living, social media, and the pandemic regularly explored in the media, this report aims to bring wider awareness to vulnerable nations ‘excluded by the digital divide.’

The scientific consensus is that Gen Z are the loneliest generation to exist, but you may be surprised to hear that 12.7% of African adolescents experience this feeling compared to 5.3% within Europe. The contributing factors differ, but the result is the same — or perhaps markedly worse.

The commission’s African Union youth envoy, Chido Mpemba, reveals that across the continent — where the population is mostly comprised of young people — challenges around conflicts, security, the climate crisis, and high levels of unemployment are causing social isolation to spread like wildfire.

‘We believe it’s important to redefine the narrative surrounding loneliness,’ she says, inferring that the West’s grapple with social media and self-image is just the tip of the iceberg when looking at the picture globally.

It will be interesting to see what revelations can be gleaned from all 11 commission advocates and government ministers in the coming months and years.

Perhaps with a more holistic dataset, we can begin to devise solutions put a dent in these troubling statistics across the board.

Originally written by Jamie Watts for Thred

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