This is the second post in a series of posts on the topic of loneliness. This post focuses on the health implications of loneliness, as well as some available solutions.
The previous posts in the series can be found here - Feeling lonely?..you’re not alone.
Quantifying the health implications of loneliness
There has been an increase in efforts to quantify the impact of loneliness. Results from a study completed in Denmark, prove that the scientific and economic consequences are undeniable.
Chronic feelings of loneliness double the likelihood of premature deaths as reported by research completed with a public nursing project, DenHeart1:
There is a positive correlation between loneliness and heart attacks, strokes, cancers, eating disorders, drug abuse, sleep deprivation, depression, alcoholism, and anxiety.
Research also suggests that lonely are more likely to suffer from cognitive decline and a quicker progression of Alzheimer’s.
Why is loneliness so devastating?
Although researchers and completed studies typically agree that loneliness has negative implications on our health, they tend to be somewhat divided on the theories of how. Some of the theories on why loneliness may lead to ill health include:
Characterized by personality traits that impede on someone’s ability to interact socially in a skillful way, or can contribute to unhealthy thought patterns. For example depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem to name a few.
The chronic lonely are more likely to slide into unhealthy habits, possibly due to a lack of encouragement from social connections. They are also more prone to eating disorders, excessive drinking, smoking, and drug abuse.
Social support can moderate environmental and genetic vulnerabilities. For example, stress, which can impede sleep. In the long run, these can be very harmful to the body.
Could it possibly be the other way round - that sick people are more likely to be lonely?
A study by the Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), an American non-profit group, found that 60% of people who reported feeling lonely blamed specific causes. With examples including both poor mental and physical health.2
In other words, this might suggest that the relationship runs both ways - ill health can lead to loneliness as well.
Can we measure the size of the problem?
The Economist/KFF study found that 9% of adults in Japan, 22% in America and 23% in Britain always or often feel lonely or isolated.2
Given the nature of loneliness, it can be hard to quantify the reach of the problem. In spite of living in an era of hyperconnectivity, we have multiple generations feeling profoundly disconnected. In fact, old and young alike report TV being their primary companion.
So what are we doing about it?
Doctors and policymakers are increasingly worried about loneliness becoming a severe public-health problem.
In the UK, the government has recognised the severity of the issue. In January of 2018, the first minister of loneliness was appointed. Shortly after they also launched their strategy for tackling loneliness. While the UK government is leading the way, Denmark, Australia, and Japan are not far behind in similar activities.3
Policymakers are also experimenting with “social prescribing,” sending patients to social activities rather than giving them drugs. Other incentives exist in the hopes of encouraging old and young to mix. In the UK, France, and Netherlands local authorities offer students affordable housing with seniors in exchange for helping out with housework.
Reconnecting with the help of modern tools
Norwegian No Isolation have developed products both for children suffering from long term and chronic illness as well as seniors separated from their closest family.
There is also the option of making use of the wealth of products such as Bumble BFF that connects you with new friends. Or how about Elefriends, specifically targeted towards the younger demographic of lonely kids and teens.
Disrupting loneliness :thinking_face:
In the film Robot & Frank we meet Frank, an isolated senior living in a secluded town. They’re concerned he’s losing his ability to look after himself as he’s getting older, and so they get him a helper robot that he soon forms a unique bond with.
Indeed, this type of “social robots” are being developed and becoming more sophisticated as we speak. For example Paro, a therapeutic robot seal from Japan.
Is it possible to substitute human connection?
As the design of technology and interfaces improve, it may be able to do more to substitute human relationships. In the meantime, services that offer human contact to the lonely are more likely to catch on thrive.
In Japan, there are agencies that will rent you a family, a boy/girlfriend, funeral mourners, or a companion to watch TV with.
A bottom-up approach - The long, but sustainable, way forward
There are plenty of reasons to take effects on health seriously. But the quality of evidence about which remedies work is woeful. Sadly, therefore, loneliness is set to remain an issue that causes pain without much relief.
At an individual level, the most compelling aspect of the loneliness epidemic is how preventable it is. Because a big part of the problem is a lack of awareness, both for lonely people and for those around them. How many times have you approached a friend or loved one to discuss your concerns about your or their loneliness?
At Mon Tonton we’re on an ambitious mission to reduce loneliness and isolation. We want to improve our community’s wellbeing by creating awareness and connecting individuals.
The Mon Tonton community is here for you :point_left:
One of our goals at Mon Tonton is to build local neighborhood communities to help connect older adults with each other. Creating these communities of retired older adults make it easy to form connection so they can support one another to age at home.
As we grow in local communities and cities, we are looking to organise events that bring people together to bridge social, generational, digital, and cultural divides. If you’re interested in being an organiser, facilitator or just a participant, please get in touch with us!
Study completed by The Heart Centre, Copenhagen University Hospital, Denmark. ↩
From the article in the Guardian - Meet Pepper the robot – Southend’s newest social care recruit ↩