A growing epidemic of loneliness is affecting large swaths of the U.S. population, worsened by isolation measures recommended by health officials throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Experts explain the country has to be addressing the massive public health concern now, especially as widespread vaccination is still months away. “During the time of the pandemic, at every level of the government, people should be sending this dual message that you gotta be safe — you’ve got to be concerned about transmitting disease — but you’ve also got to stay in relationships with people and here are ways you can do that safely,” announced Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and director of the Making Caring Common project. Over one-third of Americans surveyed by the project in October reported feeling alone “frequently.” Twenty-eight percent shared that their loneliness grew throughout the pandemic, which is consistent with findings from earlier polls. [tweet_embed] March 12, 2020[/tweet_embed] Loneliness is defined by researchers as the perceived gap between your wanted relationships and your actual relationships. “Isolation is thought to be more objective. ... whereas loneliness is that more subjective feeling,” explained Brigham Young University psychology and neuroscience researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad. She said the two usually befall together, creating scenarios that are increasingly more common throughout coronavirus lockdowns when guidance includes urging people to stay home and away from other people. “What I missed was hugs from my friends. It seems so simple. I used to play Uno every day with my co-workers at lunch,” stated Sara Hastings, 39, who lives alone in Manhattan. “Physical contact didn’t seem that important to me but I found out through this, it really is.” [tweet_embed] March 12, 2020[/tweet_embed] She called December her "absolute loneliest month." "I’ve never missed a Christmas with my mom," she said. Her mom lives in Ohio, and out of caution of spreading the virus, Hastings stayed in New York for the holidays last year. The consequence of loneliness goes well beyond how it appears. Holt-Lunstad’s research has revealed that loneliness raises the likelihood of an earlier death by 26 percent. That risk rises with factors like social isolation and living alone. Cigna, in issuing a study that found most Americans are considered lonely, reported in 2018 that loneliness has the same influence on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. [tweet_embed] March 12, 2020[/tweet_embed] Other research has revealed that loneliness and social isolation can predict chronic disease and early death with similar accuracy to other risk factors such as smoking and poor nutrition. Experts have further linked a lack of social connections to depression, domestic violence, child abuse, addiction and attraction to extremism. Consequently, researchers for years have suggested standardized guidelines to handle social isolation and loneliness, similar to those offered for diet and exercise. People with balance — in activities including family time, sleep, diet, exercise and work — tend to be less lonely.