By Sarah Knapton
Loneliness is deadlier than obesity and should be considered a major public health hazard, the biggest ever review into the problem has suggested.
Researchers in the US looked at 218 studies into the health effects of social isolation and loneliness involving nearly four million people.
They discovered that lonely people had a 50 per cent increased risk of early death, compared to those with good social connections. In contrast, obesity raises the chance of dying before the age of 70 by around 30 per cent.
Lead author Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University, Utah, said people should be preparing for retirement socially as well as financially, because for many people the workplace is their biggest source of companionship.
“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival,” she said.
“Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment.
“Yet an increasing portion of the population now experiences isolation regularly.”
According to the Campaign To End Loneliness, around 17 per cent of older people see friends, family and neighbours less than once a week, while one in 10 go for a month at a time without seeing any loved ones.
A recent survey by the charity found that for two fifths of older people, around 3.9 million, view the television as their main source of company.
Recent ONS stats Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe with its inhabitants less likely overall to know their neighbours or have strong friendships than people anywhere else in the EU, an official study suggests.
Last year, the Local Government Association said loneliness should be treated as a ‘major health issue’, while charity Age UK claim the issue ‘blights the lives’ of over a million older people.
Laura Alcock-Ferguson, Director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, said: “Meaningful social connections are essential for human happiness. At the Campaign, we want to make loneliness everyone’s business and show that we can all play a role in combatting loneliness in their community, whether as an organisation or an individual.
“At a national level, we’re calling for the development of a UK-wide strategy for tackling loneliness and social isolation to help end this growing crisis.”
Although loneliness is often viewed as a problem for the elderly, a recent study by the Mental Health Foundation found that 18- to 34-year-olds were likely to feel lonely more often than over-55s.
Studies have shown that between 20 and 80 per cent of adolescents report feeling lonely often, compared to 40 to 50 per cent in an elderly population.
The researchers said greater priority be placed on social skills training for children in schools while doctors should be encouraged to include social connectedness in medical screening, she said.
Councils should also ensure there are sufficient social spaces that encourage gathering and interaction, such as recreation centers and community gardens.
“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” added Dr Holt-Lunstad.
“With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic. The challenge we face now is what can be done about it.”
A recent study by the University of York found that lonely people are around 30 per cent more likely to suffer a stroke or heart disease, two of the leading causes of death in Britain.
But the reasons have remained unclear. Some researchers thought it was simply that there were fewer people to notice when a person was ill or encourage them to take care of their health.
However last year Harvard University found that having no friends was linked to increased levels of blood-clotting protein which can cause heart attacks and strokes.
It is now known that social isolation activates the ‘fight or flight’ stress signal which increases levels of protein fibrinogen in anticipation of injury and blood loss.
But too much fibrinogen is bad for health, raising blood pressure and causing the build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries.
People with just five people in their social network had 20 per cent higher levels fibrinogen than those with 25. Having 10-12 fewer friends had the same impact on levels as taking up smoking.
The new research was presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
Five top tips | To beat loneliness
1 When you meet up with close friends, talk about your feelings not just your jobs or families. Being honest about your life helps people feel closer to you.
2 Plan holidays or birthdays well in advance so that you are never lonely at times when it really matters.
3 Invite out a new person – someone you’ve met in the last month. Take them to a play, film, or out for supper.
4 If you have feelings of loneliness at work, fill your lunch hour with an enjoyable activity: listen to a play on your iPad or start learning a language.
5 Give yourself permission to say no to events where you can’t take a plus one – I finally realised this after an agonising wedding party last summer.
6 Don’t wait for someone to call or email – contact them. If they’re busy it doesn’t mean they are rejecting you. Try again.