Loneliness is harmful to both our physical and mental health, as well as being a deeply painful experience.
Research shows that the impact of poor social relationships on mortality is comparable to the impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and consuming alcohol, and exceeds the impact of physical activity and obesity. Lonely individuals are at higher risk of hypertension[ii], poor sleep[iii] and the onset of disability[iv].
Lonely individuals are also more prone to depression[v], cognitive decline[vi] and dementia. A Dutch study, published in December 2012, demonstrated that people who feel lonely are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s (and other forms of dementia) than those who do not feel lonely.
The study demonstrated that (even compared to the strongly influencing factors on mortality, like mental and physical health) loneliness was still a major factor: being associated with a 64% increased risk of the developing Alzheimer’s.[vii]
Loneliness has significant implications for health and social care services. Socially isolated and lonely adults are more likely to undergo early admission into residential or nursing care.[viii] Services that reduce loneliness have been shown to help to reduce GP visits, medication usage and the incidence of falls.[ix]
[i] Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS Med 2010;7(7).
[ii] Hawkley LC, Thisted RA, Masi CM, Cacioppo JT. Loneliness predicts increased blood pressure: 5-year cross-lagged analyses in middle-aged and older adults. Psychol Aging 2010;25(1):132-41
[iii] Cacioppo JT, Hawkley LC, Berntson GG, Ernst JM, Gibbs AC, Stickgold R, et al. Do lonely days invade the nights? Potential social modulation of sleep efficiency. Psychol Sci 2002;13(4):384-7
[iv] Lund R, Nilsson CJ, Avlund K. Can the higher risk of disability onset among older people who live alone be alleviated by strong social relations? A longitudinal study of non-disabled men and women. Age Ageing 2010;39(3):319-26
[v] Cacioppo JT, Hughes ME, Waite LJ, Hawkley LC, Thisted RA. Loneliness as a specific risk factor for depressive symptoms: cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Psychol Aging 2006;21(1):140-51.
[vi] James BD, Wilson RS, Barnes LL, Bennett DA. Late-life social activity and cognitive decline in old age. J Int Neuropsychol Soc 2011;17(6):998-1005.
[vii] Tjalling Jan Holwerda, Dorly J H Deeg, Aartjan T F Beekman, Theo G van Tilburg, Max L Stek, Cees Jonker, Robert A Schoevers, Research paper: Feelings of loneliness, but not social isolation, predict dementia onset: results from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly (AMSTEL), 2012
[viii] Russell DW, Cutrona CE, de la Mora A, Wallace RB. Loneliness and nursing home admission among rural older adults. Psychol Aging1997;12(4):574-89.
[ix] Cohen, G.D. et al. (2006) ‘The impact of professionally conducted cultural programs on the physical health, mental health, and social functioning of older adults’,TheGerontologist,46(6)http://gerontologist.oxfordjournals.org/content/46/6/726