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Loneliness is a killer: the health problems associated with an isolated life

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 05/11/2019 Jack Rear

© Getty We tend to think of loneliness as an unfortunate state of affairs, but the science behind it suggests being lonely is much more pernicious than that. It's health implications show it to be crippling disease – and one that reaches into far corners of our society.

Figures cited by the Jo Cox Commission On Loneliness suggest over nine million adults in the UK consider themselves “always” or “often” lonely. Loneliness particularly affects older people who are unable to maintain a wide social calendar due to disability or bereavement – however it's also felt by young people, with a recent survey finding that, in the US, it is Gen-Z (18-22-year-olds) who say they are the loneliest.

© Getty It’s not an exaggeration to call loneliness an epidemic – and perhaps we should, in order to communicate its true health effects.

This week scientists from Copenhagen University Hospital announced the results of a year-long study, looking at the health outcomes of 13,443 people who’d suffered a heart attack. The study found that women who described themselves as lonely were three times more likely to die within a year of the attack than those with an active social life; and men in the same position were twice as likely to die within a year. 

In addition, patients who were lonely were also three times more likely to be anxious, depressed and reported a lower quality of life. 

© Getty The Copenhagen study is the latest in a long line of scientific work that substantiates the negative effect loneliness has on human health. For example, one study found that the health effects of loneliness are comparable to smoking or obesity, increasing the risk of death by 26pc. There might be multiple reasons for this, but the cause is thought to be increased inflammation of the body associated with stress, which can damage immune function. 

Other studies have linked loneliness with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and an increased onset of physical disability.

Those are all physical issues; there are also mental impairments to be considered. Humans are inherently social creatures, so when we stop socialising with others, parts of our brains are left unused. Something as simple as planning a conversation forces us to use our brains and without that interaction, they can fall into disrepair. 

© Getty According to one study, loneliness in old age puts people at a greater risk of cognitive decline, including trouble remembering things and decreased learning ability. People who feel lonely are 64pc more likely to develop dementia than those with an active social life. It also raises the vulnerability to mental health illnesses like depression. This could also be the reason why a lack of social interaction and feelings of loneliness are seen as predictors of suicide in old age. 

The trauma of loneliness is one reason why people who suffer from it have a higher use of medication, are more likely to visit the GP, and are more likely to suffer trips and falls. Lonely people end up in residential care earlier than others. 

Thankfully, new research suggests that social prescription, which is to say, organised social events for people suffering from depression, seriously works. The Silver Line, one of the Telegraph’s Christmas charities this year, was founded to achieve just this, linking volunteers with elderly people for a weekly phone chat as well as operating as a helpline for older adults suffering with loneliness. 

© Getty A recent survey into the impact of The Silver Line's conversations found that they showed a reduction in the severity of loneliness. This goes some way to proving that even a little contact with the wider world can help reduce loneliness and, it is hoped, restore the health of those suffering from it.

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