Debra Levin, The Center for Health DesignIt’s sobering to learn that in three separate studies, researchers found that one-half of American adults reported experiencing loneliness. And these studies were all conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic.

This crisis continues to escalate. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General recently released the 82-page paper “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” The report equates the negative health impact of loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

It’s even more damaging than inactivity or obesity, as cited in the American Psychology Journal study “Advancing Social Connection as a Public Health Priority.”

Plus, loneliness has been found to increase the risk of dementia, stroke, heart disease, and premature death, which now makes it a social determinant of health.

In our aging society, where loneliness rates among older adults exceed those of other populations, finding solutions will become even more important and impactful.

According to a study by Maike Luhmann and Louise Hawkley, in 2012, 30 percent of older adults lived alone compared to just 10 percent in 1950. The same study found that 40 percent of those over 85 lived alone, as well; many had lost spouses, family members, and friends and had retired from work.

Building social connections

The Surgeon General’s report calls on us all to help mend the social fabric of our nation by suggesting we each start with our own lives. Ideas include strengthening our social connections and relationships by doing simple things like placing a phone call instead of sending a text, engaging in community through acts of service, and making the time to share a meal and engage with those important to us.

Once we’ve invested in our own social circles, we should consider looking at our professional work through a new lens, as well.

As an industry dedicated to designing, building, and running our nation’s healthcare facility infrastructure, what role and responsibility do we have in prioritizing and solving this epidemic?

Need for community health hubs

Some ideas to consider in how healthcare design might be part of a solution include creating facilities that serve as community health hubs with social spaces that encourage regular connections—for both visitors and staff members.

Campuses could be designed to feel welcoming, too, with open outdoor spaces and amenities like dog parks.

Overall, to combat this era of isolation, solutions will need to come from various contributors and stakeholders, including policy and larger-scale infrastructure changes.

Yet, given the role healthcare infrastructure plays in building the fabric of our communities, we are well situated to combine our education, empathy, and experience to help bring creative ideas to the forefront—solutions that impact both individual health as well as a community’s collective health and well-being.

Debra Levin is president and CEO of The Center for Health Design. She can be reached at