Today, the ONS released data that should be flagged with every public health body: a higher number of people aged 45 – 65 are living alone than ever before. Living alone and divorce are major risk factors that can lead to isolation (based on number of contacts) and loneliness (when the quality of contact is missing).

Over the thirty years time, the already high number of the over 75s living alone is likely to increase greatly. We are therefore facing an even greater public health problem: loneliness has been shown by recent research to be equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

If it continues to be ignored and unplanned for, loneliness in older age in the UK could become a catastrophe for not just individuals and communities, but our health and social care systems.

Some local authorities are already taking steps to identify how much of a problem loneliness is in their area. One recent example is Essex County Council which is using existing data sets, such as Mosaic, to map different risk factors (such as living alone, or divorce but also retirement and poor health) which can indicate “hot spots” or likely problem areas for loneliness.

This data is important to capture and understand at both population-level (for public health professionals) but also to feed through to solutions at a community-level. To use a (fictional) example, Little Chirpenham has a higher than average percentage level of divorce and lone households, many of which are single males over the age of 50. This is an area with a number of signfiicant triggers for chronic loneliness in older age.

The best place to reach those men may be by dropping leaflets about what help is on offer into pubs, sports clubhouses as well as the usual GP surgeries and Post Offices. Data becomes useful for assessing both the scale of the problem, and for devising well-targeted, low-cost interventions: particularly interventions that are signposting people to help when they need it.

Our baseline survey released this time last year found that 42% of people surveyed did not know where to go for help if they were lonely. At one of our launch events for Loneliness Harms Health this year,  the main request from organisations of the local authority was: how can we share what others are doing to tackle loneliness, so we can direct people we meet to the right activity and solution to loneliness?

Information is at the heart of tackling loneliness: from data on risk factors such as living alone, and local information about what is already on offer to tackle it. Bringing all of this together requires action at three levels:

  • Strategic – public health decision-makers prioritising loneliness in the upcoming health and wellbeing strategies;
  • Community – networking so that referrals can be made to the right activity and solution;
  • One to one  – so people can find the help they need when they need it.

Data such as that released today requires action: if you care about this issue, write to your local authority as part of our loneliness harms health campaign. If you are a health and wellbeing board, then ensure you are taking account of risk factors – have a look at how others are measuring risk factors in our loneliness toolkit for health and wellbeing boards.