November 16, 2023: One in four older people experience social isolation, and one in six adolescents is socially isolated and lonely, “though this is likely an under-estimate,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General said.
“High rates of social isolation and loneliness around the world have serious consequences for health and wellbeing. People without enough strong social connections are at higher risk of stroke, anxiety, dementia, depression, suicide and more,” said Tedros, the first African to hold the post.
Social isolation — having an insufficient number of social connections, and loneliness — and the social pain of not feeling connected, were widespread, he said. It is associated with up to a 50% increase in dementia.
The WHO on November 15 announced a new Commission on Social Connection to combat loneliness and promote social connection. The body will comprise 11 leading policymakers, thought leaders and advocates.
During its three-year course, the commission will analyse social connection’s central role in improving health for people of all ages and outline solutions to build social connections at scale.
It will consider how connection enhances the well-being of “our communities and societies and helps foster economic progress, social development, and innovation,” Tedros said.
An absence of social connection carries an equivalent, or even greater, risk of early death as other better-known risk factors — such as smoking, excessive drinking, physical inactivity, obesity, and air pollution.
Social isolation also has a serious impact on physical and mental health and studies showed that it has been linked to anxiety and depression and can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease by 30%, Tedros said.
Social disconnection also can lead to poorer education outcomes, young people experiencing loneliness in high school are more likely to drop out of university. It can also lead to poorer economic outcomes, feeling disconnected and unsupported in your job can lead to poorer job satisfaction and performance, he said.
“Young people are not immune to loneliness. Social isolation can affect anyone, of any age, anywhere,” said Chido Mpemba, African Union Youth Envoy. “Across Africa and beyond, we must redefine the narrative around loneliness. Investments in social connection are critical to creating productive, resilient and stable economies that promote the well-being of current and future generations.”
The commission will hold its first leadership-level meeting from six to eight December 2023. A flagship report will be released by the mid-point of the three-year initiative.