Loneliness can be defined as a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want (Perlman and Peplau, 1981).
There are different types of loneliness:
- Emotional loneliness is felt when we miss the companionship of one particular person; often a spouse, sibling or best friend.
- Social loneliness is experienced when we lack a wider social network or group of friends.
Loneliness can be a transient feeling that comes and goes. It can be situational; for example only occurring at certain times like Sundays, bank holidays or Christmas. Or loneliness can be chronic; this means someone feels lonely all or most of the time.
Loneliness is linked to social isolation but it is not the same thing. Isolation is an objective state whereby the number of contacts a person has can be counted. One way of describing this distinction is that you can be lonely in a crowded room, but you will not be socially isolated.
Threat to health
Loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health: research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). Social networks and friendships not only have an impact on reducing the risk of mortality or developing certain diseases, but they also help individuals to recover when they do fall ill (Marmot, 2010).
Loneliness and physical health
- Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015)
- The effect of loneliness and isolation on mortality is comparable to the impact of well-known risk factors such as obesity, and has a similar influence as cigarette smoking (Holt-Lunstad, 2010)
- Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke (Valtorta et al, 2016)
- Loneliness increases the risk of high blood pressure (Hawkley et al, 2010)
- Lonely individuals are also at higher risk of the onset of disability (Lund et al, 2010)
Loneliness and mental health
- Loneliness puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline (James et al, 2011)
- One study concludes lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia (Holwerda et al, 2012)
- Lonely individuals are more prone to depression (Cacioppo et al, 2006) (Green et al, 1992)
- Loneliness and low social interaction are predictive of suicide in older age (O’Connell et al, 2004)
Risk factors in older age:
Loneliness can be felt by people of all ages, but as we get older, risk factors that might lead to loneliness begin to increase and converge. Such risk factors include (but are not limited to):
- Poor health
- Sensory loss
- Loss of mobility
- Lower income
- Becoming a carer
- Other changes(e.g. giving up driving)
- Lack of public transport
- Physical environment (e.g.no public toilets or benches)
- Fear of crime
- High population turnover
- Technological changes
Threat to health:
Loneliness is a bigger problem than simply an emotional experience. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health: lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity.
What can be done?
At the Campaign to End Loneliness, we aim to reduce loneliness in older age by creating the right policy and funding conditions for groups and individuals working to tackle the issue. We work with a wide range of organisations to seek the following change:
1. Higher quality, and more effective, services and activities
2. Better use of existing support, especially by the most lonely
3. More commissioning and/or development of services and activities targeting loneliness
If you are from a local authority or are a healthcare professional, view our practical resources about what can be done in your locality to tackle loneliness.