Lonely adults experience more than just the psychiatric toll — they also have an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and even premature death. In younger adults, it can cause inflammation and problems with the immune system.

Dr. Jill Suttie, a psychologist who now writes for the magazine Greater Good, told Greater Boston loneliness is not the same as being alone.

“Loneliness is a disconnect between what kind of social connection you want in your life and what you actually have,” Suttie said. “That could mean not having as many connections, but it can also mean not having sufficient connections with other people so that you feel supported, safe and as if you belong in a community.”

Although everybody experiences social isolation, Gen Z is the loneliest generation, with 79% of adults aged 18 to 24 reporting feeling lonely according to a 2021 Cigna Loneliness Index Survey.

“Despite the fact that it may feel really vulnerable to admit that you’re lonely ... a lot of people are experiencing it. So you aren’t alone in being lonely,” she said. “And it’s even become worse because of the pandemic and how much we had to isolate from other people.”

Ways to alleviate feelings of loneliness can include reaching out to friends and family, or even just having brief interactions with strangers in public. Surprisingly, small unselfish gestures can be as beneficial as therapy.

“[Practicing] random acts of kindness to anybody in their lives — strangers, friends, anything — a couple of days a week for five weeks [had] as much effect on depression and anxious symptoms as doing cognitive behavioral therapy, which is kind of the standard of care,” Suttie said. “It can take you out of that feeling of focusing on your own loneliness and, sometimes, increase social connection.”

Social media use is often the scapegoat for mental health issues, but Dr. Eugene Beresin, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, said social media can be an ally. He points out that it played an important role in connecting people during the pandemic.

“It can be extraordinarily valuable for shy, anxious kids, for kids who are on the autistic spectrum and for certain activity groups that can meet online socially,” Beresin said. “That being said, I think we’re all digital hostages, and there’s excessive use and misuse of social media. And the fear of missing out, and staying up way too late and sleep deprivation, and having blue screens at night certainly don’t help.

“You can’t beat face-to-face time,” he added. “In most cases, put the phone down and just have conversations is the best advice.”