Loneliness should be treated as a ‘public health issue’ say researchers

Is loneliness a public health issue

Loneliness and social isolation have been found to significantly increase the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke and should be regarded as a public health issue, say a team of experts.

The team of researchers, from the universities of York, Newcastle and Liverpool, say their analysis, published in the BMJ’s Heart journal, indicates that poor social relationships may be associated with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and supports the importance of maintaining social contacts to good overall health and wellbeing.

Previous studies have associated social isolation with poorer health outcomes in older people, and loneliness has also been linked with an increased risk of high blood pressure, compromised immunity, cognitive decline and premature death. The issue has also been found to impact negatively on the health of younger people, contributing to depression, poor stress management and other health problems.

Leading causes of death

The researchers analysed information from a range of sources which included data relating to a total 181,000 people, collated across a total of 23 studies, some of which spanned 21 years. They found that socially isolated people had a 29% increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and a 32% increased risk of suffering a stroke - two of the leading causes of death in the UK.

Health practitioners have “important role to play”

The researchers suggest that further attention should be given to the impact of social isolation on health by public health surveillance bodies.

Dr Nicole Valtorta, of the Department of Health and Sciences at the University of York says: “Our work suggests that addressing loneliness and social isolation may have an important role in the prevention of two of the leading causes of morbidity in high-income countries.

“Tackling loneliness and isolation may be a valuable addition to coronary heart disease and stroke prevention strategies. Health practitioners have an important role to play in acknowledging the importance of social relations to their patients.”

woman sitting on bench looking away

Epidemic of loneliness

According to information published earlier this year by Age UK, 51% of the over-75s live alone, often as a result of divorce or being widowed.

Age UK also says 17% of older people who live alone only have social contact once a week, and a staggering 11% say they only socialise with other people once per month - meaning that too many older people are facing life’s hurdles on their own.

For advice on what to do to help yourself or someone else combat loneliness, visit The Campaign to End Loneliness website.

To find out more about befriending services for older people, visit Age UK.

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