Chronic loneliness could increase the demand on NHS services including A&E this winter, unless more help reaches older people, according to a leading UK Campaign.

In a new survey (released today), The Campaign to End Loneliness estimates nearly 2.5m people over 60 (16%) would not know where to go for help if they were feeling lonely, and predicts it is likely to worsen with nearly 1 in 5 (19%) over 60 year olds expecting to be lonely as they get older.

The charity is warning that loneliness and isolation are as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, with research showing that those experiencing loneliness are more likely to use accident and emergency services, visit their GP, and have higher use of medication.

The Campaign’s warning follows calls from NHS leaders last year for more support to curb loneliness to ease pressures on hospital A&E departments over the Christmas period, after emergency admissions reached record levels. Prof Keith Willett, NHS England’s Director for Acute Care last year cited a study in south west England showing that 45% of patients over 75 admitted as an emergency said they were socially isolated.

The Campaign says that health services and charities need to work closely to make older people more aware of what support is available to tackle loneliness this winter, like befriending services from Campaign members, such as UK charity the Royal Voluntary Service.

Their Good Neighbours scheme works directly with local GPs who identify those older people most at risk of ending up in hospital within the next year and their volunteers offer support and companionship to keep them safe and well – from weekly visits, or transport to a doctor’s appointment, getting some shopping in or simply having a cup of tea and a chat.

Mrs Owen, aged 72 from North Wales turned to the Good Neighbours service for support and company after a bereavement. “Good Neighbours has helped me pick up the pieces after a bereavement. I attend the lunch club with a wonderful group of people and I also use their befriending service. The service has given me the confidence to be involved with my community again.”

“Royal Voluntary Service has really made a positive difference to my life. I feel that more people need to know what their Good Neighbours service does, and what help is available.”

Marcus Rand, Director for the Campaign to End Loneliness, says: “It’s worrying that there is a lack of awareness amongst older people about the support available to address loneliness, especially when nearly 20 per cent say they expect to be lonely as they get older.

“We know that loneliness is linked to an increase in use of NHS services and is a serious public health issue. This is why it is important that health services and charities offering support to older people work together to identify and reach the most vulnerable. This early offer of support is essential to help reduce strain on local services this winter.