Commenting on new research by Age UK, which has found an increase in the number of chronically lonely older people, campaigners warn of a growing public health crisis.

A new Age UK survey has found that over one million people aged 65 or over in the UK describe themselves as feeling always or often feeling lonely[1], an increase from last year[2]. Two in five (41%) say that their TV or pet is now their main form of company [3].

This research builds on concerns raised by the Campaign to End Loneliness, a coalition which was founded by five partners including: Age UK Oxfordshire, Independent Age, Manchester City Council, Royal Voluntary Service and Sense.

A growing body of research is making a clear link between loneliness and a wide number of poor health outcomes. Loneliness has been shown to contribute to an increased risk of cognitive decline, clinical dementia, high blood pressure and heart disease.

The effect of loneliness and isolation on mortality exceeds the impact of well-known risk factors such as obesity, and has a similar influence as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Kate Jopling, Director for the Campaign to End Loneliness, says: “It is should be a grave concern to health and social care managers that so many older people are now severely lonely. The evidence is clear that loneliness leads to avoidable ill health. If we fail to take this public health issue seriously now we may end up pushing already stretched services to breaking point.

“There are many dedicated organisations out there working to support lonely older people, but they cannot solve the problem alone. We need national leadership on this issue – starting with recognition that investing in services that prevent loneliness today will help avoid a public health disaster in the future. This needs to be a top priority for every local health and care service.”

Loneliness links to poor health choices:

  • Loneliness is a risk factor for alcohol abuse, and may make it harder to give up excessive drinking[4]
  • Being single or widowed decreases the daily variety of fruit and vegetables eaten (compared to people who live with a spouse or partner). Older adults who live alone and have infrequent contact with friends eat fewer vegetables each day. [5]
  • Lonely adults are more likely to be smokers and more likely to be overweight.[6]
  • Lonely adults are less likely to engage in physical activity and exercise.[7]

Loneliness links to ill health:

  • The effect of loneliness and isolation on mortality exceeds the impact of well-known risk factors such as obesity, and has a similar influence as cigarette smoking (Holt-Lunstad, 2010)
  • 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 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)