Shocking studies have found that socially-isolated people are twice as likely to die prematurely than those with strong social relationships, as loneliness has been revealed to be as bad for humans as other health hazards like smoking, alcohol, and obesity. This particular research doesn’t even factor in the effects of loneliness on mental health and excludes death as a result of suicide or injury, so these scary statistics could, in reality, be even worse. Emotional health has always been linked to physical health, but now it’s really making people sick.
The UK has recently appointed the world’s first Minister for Loneliness, identifying the loneliness epidemic as a public health issue and starting a global conversation. Following this announcement, however, it became clear that loneliness is an issue that is still not taken seriously. Alongside the world’s inevitable tweets about Brexit, US late-night TV host Stephen Colbert joked “What next? A minister for feeling annoyed?” In light of estimates that loneliness is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, these jokes lose a bit of their zing.
The stereotype of a lonely old lady is insufficient to the extent of the problem and the late politician Jo Cox stated that "young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate." With increasing urbanisation, people no longer live in intergenerational local communities and in high-rise city buildings it is common for neighbors to not know each other’s names. As the idea of independence is glorified, more and more people are living alone and the rise of social media replaces physical human interactions with smartphone screens.
Making loneliness a government priority is one of the most effective ways of mitigating the costs of an aging population. Prevention is better than treatment. And the UK is not the only country acting on this problem: the Dutch government is investing €26 million to tackle loneliness amongst the elderly; Germany is considering its own Minister for Loneliness; and people are waking up to the scale of the issue in Scandinavia, Ireland, Japan, and the US.
Treating loneliness as a serious medical problem before it requires a hospital bed is critical to decreasing the strain on health services.
As governments start to take action, here are a few charitable organisations that continue to fight against loneliness:
Kinder has identified how Age UK excels in terms of research, both in terms of using pre-existing research and producing its own. The organisation is very awake to the loneliness epidemic and combats the problem with its own “Befriending” services and campaigning for government action.
Mind is also tackling the loneliness epidemic through addressing the vicious cycle of mental health and loneliness.
But organised institutions aren’t necessary to help make someone feel less alone: just say hello! Asking somebody how they are, or offering a simple cup of a tea can make a huge difference to a person feeling isolated. Volunteering and community outreach programmes are also hugely effective remedies to loneliness, and modern tech actually provides an opportunity to connect with more people and organise meet-ups. Have conversations, fight the stigma, and let kindness be the cure. No one should have no one.