(CBS Local)- Former Surgeon General Doctor Vivek Murthy brought mental health to the forefront last September when he wrote in the Harvard Business Review that loneliness is a "growing health epidemic." Now a recent survey by health service company Cigna adds to that by showing many Americans say they sometimes or always feel alone.
The survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults ages 18 years and older revealed some alarming findings:
- Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
- One in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
- Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent).
- One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20 percent) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18 percent).
Interestingly, Generation Z -- those ages 18 to 22 -- were the loneliest group in the survey, while adults 72 and older were the least lonely. "Loneliness is defined as a feeling of being alone or lacking social connectedness," Dr. Douglas Nemecek, M.D., chief medical officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna, told CBS News. "At Cigna, we've been hearing more and more from our customers and individuals calling us that they're feeling lonely, alone and disconnected from others.
Murthy, who was appointed Surgeon General by President Barack Obama in 2013, wrote that today 40% of adults in America say they feel lonely and the rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Some experts are doubling down on Murthy's health concerns, going as far as saying loneliness is making people ill and can even shorten one's lifespan.
"We get multiple ways that our physical body can break down," cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf recently told KTSB-TV. "But also there's the mind where the frustration, depression, anxiety, all those adjectives, all those descriptions those are are also side-effects, so people pull away."
Leaf, who focuses her work on the mind-brain connection, argues on her website that "75 to 95 percent of the illnesses that plague us today are a direct result of our thought life." That is, negative or toxic thoughts can singlehandedly affect our health and lead to serious diseases including diabetes, asthma, and even cancer.
"When we think, feel, and choose, we are changing and influencing every single cell in our body," she told KTSB.
The uptick in loneliness rates is impacting the overall health of the country. According to a report from Gallup, loneliness causes long-term stress and people who don't have strong social connections in the workplace are more likely to fall sick or be injured.
"One feels a sense of emptiness, kind of like an emptiness of the soul. A wounded heart and lack of connection. A sense of disconnection," Dr. Cheryl Bemel told CBS Minnesota. "It's very hard to have someone really listen. When someone says 'how are you doing?' Are they really asking how are we doing? We typically ask that question and expect people to say 'I'm good.'"
Previous research shows that loneliness can contribute to health problems, like heart disease. A study in 2010 showed loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it more dangerous than obesity.
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