Loneliness: like smoking 15 cigarettes a day

There is much suffering in the world - physical, material, mental. The suffering of some can be blamed on the greed of others. The material and physical suffering is suffering from hunger, from homelessness, from all kinds of diseases. But the greatest suffering is being lonely, feeling unloved, having no one. (Mother Teresa)

Loneliness not only feels bad, it can also be harmful to your health. And it's not just an old person malady.

Research shows a lack of social connections or friends can be as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Friendships and social networks not only have an impact on reducing the risk of death or developing certain diseases, but they also help individuals to recover when they become ill.

Loneliness and physical health

  • Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%. The effect of loneliness and isolation on mortality is comparable to the impact of risk factors such as obesity and has a similar impact as cigarette smoking
  • It's associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke
  • It increases the risk of high blood pressure
  • Lonely people are also at higher risk of the onset of disability.

Loneliness and mental health

  • It puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline. One study found the lonely have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia
  • Lonely individuals are more prone to depression with loneliness and low social interaction predictive of suicide in older age.

Loneliness and independence

Preventing and reducing loneliness is vital for older people to remain as independent as they can be. Lonely people are more likely to:

  • Visit their GP, have higher use of medication, higher incidence of falls and increased risk factors for long-term care
  • Be more likely to enter early into residential or nursing care
  • Use A&E independent of chronic illness.

Some of the increased risk of disease may come from changes in behaviour: people who feel isolated may not have friends or family encouraging them to eat right, exercise, or see a doctor.

However, new research suggests that loneliness can also directly harm our health. Research has found that loneliness may alter the tendency of cells in the immune system to promote inflammation. Inflammation is necessary to help our bodies heal from injury. But when it goes on too long, it may raise the risk of chronic diseases.

People who feel lonely may also have weakened immune cells that have trouble fighting off viruses and infections.

People often associate loneliness with getting older. But you can feel lonely at any age – with social media preventing younger people from connecting in real life.

So how can we stop loneliness in our society and ourselves?

  • Studies show that loneliness can be reduced by helping others. By volunteering or caring for others (like older lonely people) can make people feel less lonely. You're more likely to meet people and make friends as well and helping others is good for your mental health
  • Having a purpose in life has been linked to healthier immune cells, so you're less likely to pick up viruses or infections
  • Think about what interest you - is there a class or group where you can connect?
  • It's very hard with social media to stop comparing ourselves with others and this can make us feel lonely. It's important to remind yourself that you don't know how people feel when they are alone, or when their social media feeds are turned off
  • Keep your diary filled - get out and about and involved in local community activities
  • There will be someone lonely out there who will benefit from your friendship and care.

The government recently announced that charities and community groups will get £20 million of new funding to help isolated people and those suffering from loneliness. The funding will go to support and expand programmes that bring people together and are proving to benefit communities. There's also a great campaign to help the lonely, particularly as they get older, the Campaign to End Loneliness. Take a look or watch the video below.