One in 10 Americans say they feel isolated from their surroundings all or most of the time; Half a million Japanese say they are socially isolated and the UK has appointed a loneliness minister – the first of its kind – urging leaders of the World Economic Forum in Davos to debate the growing global health concern of the week last.
An American scientist said she could have the answer – in the form of a pill.
Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the Brain Dynamics Lab at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine, is studying a pill that she hopes will prevent people at risk from living in a state of chronic loneliness – a company that arouses both interest and criticism the scientific world.
"Loneliness increases the risk of dying earlier by 26%, which is actually more than obesity," Cacioppo told Fox News. "Loneliness is widespread and contagious, it's an epidemic."
In response to critics who cite the country's growing dependence on prescription drugs, Cacioppo says, "A quick fix may be helpful if it prevents suicide, and it can not replace healthy social relationships." . "
Cacioppo defines loneliness as "the difference between what you want in a relationship and what you have in a relationship" and notes that "being alone does not necessarily mean loneliness".
"It all depends on how we perceive our relationships," said Cacioppo. "You can feel extremely alone in a wedding, with friends or family."
"The lonely brain also thinks that it has more enemies than friends," she said. "And he constantly monitors threats or potential dangers."
Cacioppo focuses on normalizing levels of allopregnanolone – a naturally occurring neurosteroid produced in the body – that could thus treat some of the brain's biological changes related to loneliness. The pill, she says, differs from commonly used antidepressants in that it "specifically targets loneliness".
Financial stress, living alone, unhappy family life and lack of common bonds are among the main causes of loneliness. Loneliness has a health risk factor of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to a widely cited 2010 study by Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor at Brigham Young University.
"We are witnessing a peak of loneliness among people who tend to feel this social pressure as a link," said Cacioppo, pointing out that the feeling of loneliness increased at certain times of the year, as during holidays like New Year or Valentine's Day, when "have the greatest expectations of society."
The researchers also noted that social media was a double-edged sword: they could sometimes help us feel connected and, to others, create an increased sense of isolation.
"Social media has been trying to promote social gathering but, in reality, it could increase feelings of loneliness," said Cacioppo. "It all depends on how we use it.If you use social media only to watch others enjoy yourself, you may feel extremely lonely.But if you use it as a way to talk to your friends, to be really authentic and to plan face-to-face, you may feel less alone. "
On his website, Gretchen Rubin, author of "The Happiness Project", describes the practical steps to take to combat loneliness without drugs. "Taking the habit of feeding others," notes Rubin – like teaching in class or volunteering – can lead to greater determination and greater self-esteem. "It's just as important to provide support as to get support," she wrote. Other behaviors include looking for a group – a book club or a workout – as well as improving the quality of a person's sleep.
National number of the suicide prevention lifeline: 800-273-TALK