You don’t have to be new in town to be lonely. Or retired. Or living alone. It happens to people of all ages in all walks of life.

Being connected is a basic human need. But more and more people feel cut off from others. In fact, loneliness has been called an epidemic. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation may be a bigger health threat than obesity, and the risk is growing. It’s a public health problem because so many people are touched by it. One AARP study found that about 42 million adults age 45 and older have long-term loneliness.

Your mental and physical health can take a hit if you’re lonely for a long time. If you’re lonely, there are steps you can take to make a fuller life.

A Growing Problem

The rate of loneliness in the U.S. has doubled since the 1980s, says former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness,” Murthy wrote.

Loneliness and weak social ties are linked to shorter lives, much like the effects of smoking and obesity, Murthy says. It also raises the chances of dementia, depression and heart disease. And in the workplace, it can slow thinking and action.

Make a Plan

Making specific plans to reduce loneliness may help. Giving social skills training to children is one way. Having doctors ask about loneliness in health screenings is one more.

As people age and lose the social ties they had from working, they can plan to replace that interaction with other types of social groups.

And communities can make sure there are shared social spaces for meeting, like gardens and recreation centers.

The United Kingdom even has a Minister for Loneliness to help create ways to link people. The plan is to fund programs that support sharing homes and add meeting places like recreation centers.

Give Yourself a Hand

If loneliness is something you’re dealing with, you should know that you have the power to overcome it. You can:

  • Be open about your feelings. You may find others who are feeling the same way.
  • Think about what you’d like to do. If it’s spending time with family or friends, reach out with an invitation to get together. Maybe you would like to go to religious services. Or you could join groups that share your interests, like a book club or hiking group.
  • Take care of yourself. Be as active as you can. Eat healthy food and get enough sleep.
  • Reach out to your doctor if medical or mental health problems, like depression or anxiety, are reinforcing your feelings of being alone.
  • Learn about meditation and mindfulness. They have been shown to help with depression and anxiety.
  • Share your time by volunteering. If you have a hobby, offer to teach others.
  • Join others for community events. Check out event calendars where you live.

icon_phonePut down your phone.

Mobile phones are replacing face-to-face talk and the social skills and ties that come from sharing feelings in person, says author and professor Sherry Turkle in an interview with the Greater Good Science Center. We all see people who are in the same room together paying more attention to their phones than each other. This distraction can damage our bonds with each other and lead to feeling lonely and isolated. So when you’re with friends and family, put down your phone and connect in real life.