Loneliness could be as serious an epidemic as obesity, say experts

by Nicky Pellegrino / 18 February, 2018

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The connectedness promised by social media has done nothing to help loneliness. Photo/Getty Images

As well as making us glum, loneliness can lead to physical illness, according to recent research.

We are set for a loneliness epidemic that will be as serious a public health issue as obesity, say some experts. The latest research indicates elderly New Zealanders are already suffering. One in five identify as being lonely, according to interRAI, a comprehensive assessment of older people living in the community, led by the Ministry of Health.

“That’s slightly higher than we’d have expected,” says geriatrician and researcher Hamish Jamieson of the University of Otago, Christchurch. “Previous studies have looked at loneliness, but this represents an older and frailer group, people with long-term conditions and reduced mobility.”

Loneliness isn’t restricted to older people, of course; it is rife throughout the generations. The 2014 New Zealand General Social Survey showed those aged 16-24 had high levels, and economic status also played a significant part – the less you have, the lonelier you feel.

This has consequences for physical health as well as mental well-being. Loneliness is considered on a par with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise and smoking as a risk factor for illness and early death.

There are studies that link feeling lonely to dementia in the elderly. One, by Harvard Medical School, showed that lonely people decline cognitively at a faster rate than those who report satisfying social relationships and connections.

It is also believed to influence levels of inflammation in the body, thus increasing the chance of developing conditions such as cardiovascular disease. “Health, generally, is a lot poorer in people who are lonely,” says Jamieson. “It can make many issues worse, including pain, depression, anxiety and respiratory conditions.”

University of Otago geriatrician and researcher Hamish Jamieson.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that even a generation ago, social isolation wasn’t such a concern. Neighbourhoods, community groups and churches were a lot stronger, people moved around less and families weren’t as fragmented. And the connectedness promised by social media has done nothing to help. In fact, there are studies to show that the more time people report spending on social media, the more socially isolated they feel.

It’s a complex problem, says Jamieson. “Just because you live with other people doesn’t mean you’re not lonely – 20% of older people living with an adult child are lonely; 11% living with a spouse are lonely.”

There are ethnic differences, too, according to the interRAI study, which involves people aged 65 to 101. Asians are the group experiencing the greatest feelings of isolation, and Pasifika people are the least likely to suffer from loneliness.

“It’s something we don’t tend to talk about a lot,” says Jamieson. “People are more open about depression and anxiety these days, but loneliness is not admitted to. There’s still a sense of shame about it.”

A study in the UK showed that one in 10 GP visits by elderly people is motivated by loneliness rather than physical illness. With his own elderly patients, Jamieson says there is no way of guessing who is lonely. “They don’t mention it unless you ask.”

There’s no easy solution, but often the first step is making sure family members know about the problem, then helping isolated people become involved in community groups and access transport.

Jamieson believes the problem needs social investment and should be influencing city planning. “People do better in communities. They help us deal with a lot of different problems.”

Age Concern is also seeking solutions. The organisation has a scheme to provide regular visits to older people who want more company and is looking at how the service can better meet people’s needs.

In the UK, the Government recently appointed a Minister for Loneliness to combat what Prime Minister Theresa May said was “the sad reality of modern life”.

Meanwhile, Jamieson is going deeper into the reasons behind loneliness in the elderly, how it affects hospital admissions and what that costs society.

He thinks the problem is only going to get bigger as the population ages, technology continues to advance and people become busier.

“It’s important that we don’t just focus on issues such as cognitive decline and chronic health conditions. Loneliness is a big issue and it’s affecting people’s well-being.”

This article was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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