Many Americans have been plagued by loneliness and young people are bearing the biggest burden. According to a nationwide survey conducted by health insurer Cigna, more than half of survey respondents reported they always or sometimes felt alone or left out.
Cigna used the UCLA Loneliness Scale to survey 20,000 American adults across the nation. The scale uses a formula and a variety of statements to calculate a loneliness score which ranges between 20 and 80. Those who score at or above 43 are considered lonely.
The average score was 44, suggesting that the majority of Americans are suffering from loneliness. What’s more, two out of every five respondents said their relationships aren’t meaningful and that they lack companionship.
David Cordani, the president and CEO of Cigna Corp., says he can’t help but be surprised by the data. Yet the results of the survey are consistent with research that’s been done in the past.
According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, previously conducted estimates have found that between 20% to 43% of Americans report feeling socially isolated or lonely.
Multiple studies have found that chronic loneliness and social isolation are linked to a higher risk of stroke and coronary heart disease. It’s also been shown to affect our immune systems, our genes, and even our ability to recover from cancer.
“There’s a blurred line between mental and physical health,” said Cordani. “Oftentimes, medical symptoms present themselves and they’re correlated with mental, lifestyle, behavioral issues like loneliness.”
Surprisingly, the Cigna survey found that younger Americans were lonelier than older generations. While those aged 72 and above scored a 38.6 on the loneliness scale, baby boomers scored 42.4. Millennials scored an average of 45.3 and Generation Z scored 48.3.
But why are young adults the loneliest generation in America? Researchers suggest a variety of factors.
One reason is lack of sleep. The Cigna study found that those who receive the recommended amount of sleep (seven to nine hours) are less likely to report loneliness. Yet many young adults aren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep they need.
In fact, even school-aged children are suffering from sleep deprivation. The average school-aged child receives 9.5 hours of sleep despite experts recommending 10 to 11 hours.
Another reason is social media use. Holt-Lunstad says it isn’t screen time that creates a sense of loneliness, but how people use their screen time.
Online users who use social media to actively connect with other people are less likely to experience loneliness. Those who passively scroll through feeds are more likely to feel left out or isolated.
This links to the credit card debt many young Americans are sinking into. According to Time, many millennials are spending money they don’t have to keep up with their friends. In fact, the average man spends up to $85 a month on clothing alone.
Finally, another reason for loneliness in younger generations is a lack of support and coping mechanisms. The Guardian reports that many young people reach the brink of suicide before reaching out for help with mental health.
“I would hope that with a large insurer like Cigna [releasing a report on loneliness], that [loneliness] would start to be more on the radar of major health organizations,” said Holt-Lunstad, “but also actual health care providers.”