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Living alone in America: An escalating public health crisis

American adults living alone have a significantly greater risk of depression compared to those residing with others. This is the conclusion of a recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The experts analyzed data from the 2021 National Health Interview Survey including responses from 29,482 participants.

Risk of social isolation 

The results showed that 6.4% of adults living alone reported experiencing feelings of depression. This outcome remained consistent across various demographics. Among adults who were living with others, 4.1 percent reported feelings of depression.

“People living alone may be at greater risk of social isolation and loneliness, which have been linked to higher mortality risk and adverse health outcomes, including mental health outcomes, compared with people living with a spouse or partner,” wrote the study authors.

Feelings of depression were defined as having “daily feelings” of depression either “a lot of the time” or “somewhere between a little and a lot of the time,” or adults who reported having “weekly feelings” of depression “a lot of the time.”

Living alone: An alarming trend

An alarming trend noted in the study is the rise in the number of U.S. adults living alone. This figure increased by 14.5% over the last decade, from 33.1 million in 2012 to 37.9 million in 2022. 

Single-person households constituted 28.9% of all U.S. households in 2022, a notable rise from 13.6% in 1962. The analysis further revealed that in 2021, 16% of U.S. adults lived alone, with a slight majority being women (51.9%).

The impact of loneliness 

The implications of isolation and loneliness have become a focal point for public health experts. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these conditions. 

Loneliness is not just a feeling of solitude. It is a condition that can increase the risk for a myriad of health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, addiction, suicide, dementia, and premature death.

However, the experts also caution against oversimplifying the relationship between living alone and experiencing depression. Factors such as personal choice, community engagement, and access to social and emotional support play critical roles in determining the impact of solitude on individuals’ mental health.

Key findings

The research highlighted significant disparities in depression rates across different racial and ethnic groups, with Hispanic adults living alone reporting the highest rates of depression.

Income levels also appear to influence the mental health of those living alone, with a higher incidence of reported depression among individuals earning below the federal poverty level compared to those with higher incomes.

Social and emotional support 

Notably, the experts found that older Americans, particularly those aged 65 and above, constitute the largest percentage of adults living alone. Yet, this group reported the lowest percentage of feelings of depression. 

This suggests that age, perhaps along with a lifetime of coping mechanisms and social networks, might play a protective role against depression.

The study underscores the importance of social and emotional support in mitigating feelings of depression among adults living alone. Those with minimal support reported higher rates of depression compared to those who consistently received support.

Public health crisis 

This research arrives at a crucial time when loneliness is increasingly being recognized as a public health crisis. Earlier this month, San Mateo County in California became the first county to declare loneliness a public health emergency.

“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health,” said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.

“Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connections the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders.”

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