PROVO, Utah (ABC4) – In a global-scale study, researchers at Brigham Young University have shed greater light on how impactful one of the COVID-19 pandemic’s most pervasive effects has been on the world.

The effect studied: loneliness.

At the onset of the pandemic, both political and healthcare leaders advocated for decreased social contact to reduce the spread of COVID-19. While that recommendation – and in some cases, mandate – would have carried the benefit of decreased exposure to the illness, it didn’t come without a cost.

“There was a significant increase in reports of severe loneliness due to the pandemic,” BYU psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad states. “Prior to the pandemic, approximately 6% reported severe loneliness, whereas during the pandemic 21% reported severe loneliness.”

More than just an emotional or mental issue, previous research further sounds the alarm on how devastating an extreme sense of social detachment can be on a person’s physical health. Data from a study Holt-Lunstad co-authored in 2010 shows folks with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival as opposed to those with inadequate relationships. The numbers in the study done a decade ago show a lack of relationships was a more critical risk factor than obesity.

“We have very good evidence that our relationships influence our physical health,” Holt-Lunstad says of her work in 2021. “Being socially connected can lead to healthier kinds of outcomes, or conversely, being isolated or lonely can lead to poor health outcomes.”

Even though there have been some adjustments to day-to-day life to bring people together, even in a virtual setting, loneliness has continued to spread. Holt-Lunstad’s research found those who found video calls even mildly annoying were likely to be experiencing a feeling of alienation.

This isn’t just an American problem, it can be easy to forget the entire planet has been suffering from the effects of the pandemic. The study on loneliness surveyed more than 20,000 from across the globe with a majority of non-U.S. respondents hailing from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Pakistan, and Mexico. Overall, the findings reflected those with certain risk factors such as low educational attainment, poor physical and mental health, financial insecurity, and a low value on religion were most likely to be critically lonely.

The findings weren’t entirely unsurprising. Loneliness has been a well-documented and well-assumed part of the pandemic. Just how much of a problem and how far-reaching in time and distance it may be was not as well understood.

“It wasn’t surprising that we would find increases in loneliness,” Holt-Lunstad says. “But what perhaps may have been somewhat surprising was the extent and what these data suggest is some profound effects that we need to take very seriously, because this isn’t just a small group that is affected, this is our global population.”

According to Holt-Lunstad, rethinking how to care for a person’s social health needs to be a bigger part of the equation when thinking long term. Her study notes that due to an increased likelihood of future pandemics and calls for social distancing, understanding what factors lead to loneliness and isolation must be a priority for public health leaders.

In addition to better understanding the pros and cons of measures like masks and vaccines, the unseen effects or the ‘shadow pandemic’ of loneliness, as Holt-Lunstad referred to it in the summer of 2020, need to be addressed as well. The scars of loneliness could ripple well past the lifting of COVID-related social restrictions.

“We know that the pandemic had a significant effect, not only in terms of the lives lost due to the official death toll, but we know that the secondary effects are far greater,” Holt-Lunstad says. “There may be longer-term effects on public health.”