Woman with head in hands, feeling depressed.

What to know about loneliness, and why public health professionals are taking note | Sep 30, 2017

While a familiar sensation for almost every person, the truth is, no one likes to feel lonely. Now, researchers and public health professionals are paying more attention to the issue of loneliness and how it affects certain groups of the population. Feelings of isolation can have more of an impact on a person’s health than many believed in the past, and a recent study shows it can actually contribute to risk factors for mortality.

Quantifying loneliness: Statistics tell a story

Loneliness is an issue that is typically tied to the elderly community, particularly after a person’s spouse passes away. However, everyone can feel lonely at one moment or another – even younger adults who seem to have an easier time building a social circle can be impacted by isolation. This is especially true when adults move out on their own, and may not have had a chance to establish a supportive network in a new location, for example.

What’s more, it appears that loneliness is becoming more common. According to statistics from a 2014 Psychology Today article, experts estimated at that time that 40 percent of people would be affected by loneliness at some point in their life. More recently, Dokuz Eylul University’s system analyst Ali Sumer noted in 2016 that this estimate had increased and that 1 in 5 Americans suffers from continuous loneliness.

“More Americans are living alone than ever before, while one-third of people aged 45 to 63 are single — and some experts are saying that loneliness could be America’s next big public health crisis, on par with obesity,” Sumer wrote.

Feelings of loneliness are on the rise, despite technological advances like online social networks which aim at bringing people closer together. More people in everyday communities are feeling the effects of loneliness, which can go beyond simply feeling isolated and sad. Loneliness can have a considerable impact on a person’s health, and as more people deal with this issue, it’s important that public health professionals know how to respond.

Loneliness and its impact on health

Isolation and feeling lonely are usually associated with depression, a very serious health issue in and of itself. Beyond the psychological effects, Guy Winch, Ph.D., noted that loneliness can also physically manifest itself in individuals’ bodies, including through symptoms like:

  • Feeling cold: Winch explained that when a person feels lonely, or “pushed into the cold” by others, studies have shown that he or she will also estimate room temperatures as significantly colder than they actually are.
  • Increased blood pressure and cholesterol: Loneliness can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety and stress, which can result in high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
  • Heightened risk of health problems over time: If loneliness persists for long periods, other health issues can emerge, including reduced immune system function and increased risk for cardiovascular disease.

“Over time, people who are chronically lonely have a much higher incidence of cardiovascular disease because their bodies are under constant and unrelenting stress,” Winch wrote. “Loneliness causes our immune systems to function less efficiently, which over time, puts us at increased risk for developing all kinds of illnesses and diseases. Even brief bouts of loneliness impact our immune system.”

Additionally, a Forbes article stated that people impacted by loneliness are much less likely to engage in beneficial habits like good hygiene, eating healthy and getting exercise and regular sleep. Skipping these important rituals can contribute to further health issues, making it more difficult for someone suffering from loneliness to recover.

Research shows loneliness can contribute to mortality

Feelings of intense loneliness are known to lead to sadness, anxiety and depression, which can result in further health problems. Now, however, a new study shows that persistent loneliness can actually contribute to earlier mortality.

According to a meta-analytic review study first published in Sage Journals in 2015, living alone and feeling consistently lonely and isolated was shown to increase the likelihood of death. The study included literature research of studies from 1980 through 2014 and quantitative analysis of how loneliness, living alone and social isolation can contribute to mortality.

Surprisingly, researchers found that whether loneliness was actively felt or not, it had a similarly damaging impact on a person’s health.

“Overall, the influence of both objective and subjective social isolation on risk for mortality is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality,” study authors wrote.

Researchers were even able to quantify the impact, and found that being socially isolated can increase the chances of death by approximately 30 percent, or as much as 60 percent. Loneliness doesn’t just impact a person’s mental health, but can create significant health problems that, if not addressed, can kill an individual.

Loneliness vs. solitude: A considerable difference

Although loneliness is a serious issue that can absolutely affect a person’s mental and physical well-being, being alone doesn’t automatically translate to social isolation. In fact, Rita Watson, MPH, noted in an article she wrote for Psychology Today that solitude greatly differs from loneliness, and can actually be beneficial.

“Although solitude most often takes place during alone time, the silence of solitude is a way to tune into your positive self and be grateful,” Watson said. “It is not a new or unique theory. Those who practice mindfulness or meditation have an advantage in the world of solitude because in silence they can thrive and achieve a certain peace of mind.”

It’s important that health professionals and individuals understand the distinction here, and not avoid solitude for fear of loneliness.

Who’s at risk of loneliness?

As current statistics show, almost everyone feels lonely at one point in their life or another, or they know someone being impacted by social isolation. This issue is now so common, it was highlighted at an American Psychological Association presentation in Washington D.C. in 2017, and was denoted as “a public health threat,” according to Watson.

While loneliness can affect anyone, it is much more common in the elderly population, especially when someone experiences the death of a loved one, or is impacted by serious illness themselves.

Sumer pointed out that as more Americans spend time alone, loneliness is becoming increasingly common. Now, one-third of people 45 to 63 are single, and 25 percent of people 50 and older are divorced.

Even young adults can feel the effects – college freshmen, immersed in a new location and without the benefit of their usual social circle, were found to have a poorer health reaction to flu shots due to the impact of loneliness on their immune systems, Winch noted.

Best practices: What can health professionals do?

Overall, health professionals in every circle are paying more attention to the problem of loneliness and the impact it can have on the health of their local communities. It’s important that those in the public health sector understand how to identify loneliness, and extend outreach to individuals impacted by it.

Experts recommend that health professionals not shy away from tough questions, and ask those they think may be lonely if they spend enough time with friends and loved ones, or if their social life is satisfying. Being open about loneliness and providing people with someone to talk to is an essential first step.

In addition, Mick Ward, Leeds City Council’s Head of Commissioning, Adult Social Care, pointed out that community initiatives are imperative to fighting loneliness. Bringing people together – particularly those at a higher risk of loneliness, like the elderly – can help individuals build a more supportive social circle.

One of the most critical things public health professionals can do to address the issue of loneliness is to simply raise awareness. Most people understand that social isolation is something they don’t enjoy experiencing, but many don’t know the considerable health impact that loneliness can have. Especially in light of recent research, public health professionals must educate the community, and make efforts to ensure that people are made aware of the extent of the health issues loneliness can cause.

Public health professionals are in a unique position to increase awareness of loneliness, and help organize community events to help combat it. Health professionals must have the proper education, though, to put themselves in the right position to make a difference.

Skills including those associated with health promotion, epidemiology and health services administration are critical. The University of Arizona Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health enables working professionals to take part in a 100 percent online Master of Public Health program, allowing health professionals to glean the expertise needed to address loneliness and other pervasive public health issues.

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