Loneliness, especially in our older years, is a predictor of death.
Being on your own isn’t just emotionally and psychologically devastating, it’s physically debilitating too. Social isolation is a public health issue.
“There’s been an explosion of public awareness here, from local authorities to the Department of Health to the media,” said Paul Cann, ex-chief executive of Age UK Oxfordshire and a founder of The Campaign to End Loneliness.
As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity.
There’s a lot of evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline.
“The profound effects of loneliness on health and independence are a critical public health problem,” said Dr Carla M Perissinotto, a geriatrician at the University of California.
“It is no longer medically or ethically acceptable to ignore older adults who feel lonely and marginalised.”
In Britain and the US, roughly one in three people older than 65 live alone. In the US, half of those older than 85 live alone. Research in both countries shows that up to 46% of over-60s report having feelings of loneliness.
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology identified a “loneliness centre” in the brain, a centre best known for its link to depression.
Sophie Andrews, chief executive of The Silver Line helpline, a 24-hour call centre for older people seeking contact with other people, said she was surprised by the explosion of calls shortly after she started the service three years ago.
Now the Blackpool centre takes 1,500 calls a day, a sign of just how prevalent loneliness is in the 21st century. Professor John Cacioppo of Chicago University has shown that loneliness overstimulates the body’s stress response.
Chronic loneliness causes increased levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone, raises blood pressure, decreases blood flow to vital organs and can impair the immune system’s ability to fight infections. It’s quite a catalogue of ailments which could be avoided.
University of California research of 1,604 participants showed more than four in 10 reported feelings of loneliness.
And they had higher rates of declining mobility, difficulty in performing routine daily activities, and death during six years of follow-up, than those who didn’t complain of loneliness.
Loneliness seems to affect women more than men – 70% of the calls to Silver Line are from women.
So don’t leave your old folks on the sidelines, especially at Christmas.
Families should have a “visiting rota” to make sure their elderly relatives feel included in life and everyone plays their part.