A medicine for loneliness

 

That friendship is vital was obvious to the wise of the ancient world. Indeed, Aristotle devotes to friendship two of the ten books that make up the Nicomachean Ethics.

The profusion of photos showing happy people —at least to judge from their wide smiles— on social media would seem reassuring. “Friends” may count in the thousands in said web portals. And that would beguile us into believing that we are swarming in a sea of friendship.

Yet Billy Baker lets us into an uncomfortable truth. Many middle-aged men let their friendships lapse. Those who have not found a significant other are worse off. And indeed, at least in the United States but also in many other countries, there is an epidemic of loneliness.

Research shows that lonely people run a higher risk of an earlier death than their more gregarious neighbors. They are also more exposed to higher risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as Alzheimer’s. It can be as much of a long-term risk factor as smoking, Baker says.

And then he quotes a study by Brigham Young University. With data from 3.5 million people collected over 35 years, researchers found the risk of premature death rise 26 to 32 percent among persons who are alone.

Today in the United States, nearly a third of people older than 65 live alone. Half of Americans are alone by the time they turn 85. “Add all of this up, and you can see why the surgeon general is declaring loneliness to be a public health epidemic”, Baker writes.

“In poverty as well as in other misfortunes, people suppose that friends are their only refuge”, Aristotle wrote. That was true under the sun of Greece more than two millennia ago. It is truer today, and even in wealth and good fortune.

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