We've all felt lonely at some point. It's sad, but it's usually temporary.
Long-term loneliness is something deeper, more consuming — the feeling of walking through life utterly alone. Tens of millions of Americans feel that isolation every day. It's being called an epidemic.
A survey of 20,000 adults by Cigna found this: More than half (54 percent) said they always or sometimes feel like no one knows them well. Just under half report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
But this might be the most surprising finding: Generation Z (young adults 18-22) have a total average loneliness score of 48.3 — making them the loneliest generation. The least lonely group is the Greatest Generation, the oldest group.
Keep in mind that loneliness is a feeling. It is more than simply being alone. And it doesn't just go away when others are around. Some people who are alone don't always feel lonely. Some people who are frequently with other people, do.
Sociologist Robert Weiss identified six social needs that contribute to loneliness when not met: attachment, social integration, nurturance, reassurance of worth, sense of reliable alliance and guidance in stressful situations.
No matter how old you are, the consequences of loneliness can be severe in mind and body.
Depression: When lonely, brain hormones related to stress become active and can cause depression.
Heart disease: This is a big one. Research shows lonely people have a higher risk of heart disease. Those stress hormones that can cause depression also can lead to a buildup of cholesterol deposits.
Inflammation: People who feel lonely produce more inflammation-related proteins. Inflammation is linked to numerous health conditions, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s.
And don't forget that children experiencing loneliness have an increased risk of dropping out of school. Lonely adults are prone to alcoholism and drug addiction. Now, how to "treat" loneliness depends on the individual.
Suggestions can be found on just about every lifestyle blog. Go to a class, get a pet, volunteer. There's also a program called LISTEN. It is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy to counter loneliness.
Finally, the good old basics: join a book club, go to a new exercise class. And always, always say "hello." Chances are the person next to you could be feeling lonely, just waiting for a human connection.