Researchers say loneliness has officially become a public health emergency: Here’s why we need to take notice

Many of us suffer from feelings of loneliness from time to time. Whether we’re surrounded by friends and family or

Many of us suffer from feelings of loneliness from time to time. Whether we’re surrounded by friends and family or living on our own, loneliness can pierce into the very centre of our being making us feel vulnerable and alone.

While it is often thought of as a social and psychological issue, researchers have now discovered a physical link between loneliness and our health, as reported by The Age. There was always a suspected link between the two, but scientists now say loneliness can be lethal.

The researchers say loneliness and isolation can change the human genome – meaning it has a direct effect on how our bodies function. These genetic changes can be as harmful to our bodies as smoking, obesity and diabetes and have many experts worried.

“In public health, we talk all the time about obesity and smoking and have all these interventions, but not about people who are lonely and socially isolated,” said Kerstin Gerst Emerson, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Gerontology.

“There are really tangible, terrible outcomes. Lonely people are dying, they’re less healthy, and they are costing our society more.”

The science behind the link can be broken down into a simple explanation: loneliness increases the activity of the genes responsible for inflammation and decreases the activity in genes that create antibodies to fight infection. Our brains literally send a signal to our bodies to say ‘something is wrong’.

So what can we do about this issue? Being alone doesn’t necessarily equate to feeling lonely. When we choose to be alone we often enjoy ourselves, having the time to do the things we want to whether they’re productive or relaxing. Being forced into being alone is a different kettle of fish and this is where the trouble starts.

If we’re alone due to divorce or death or even the kids growing up and moving out, feelings of loneliness can creep in and take over. It often comes down to people thinking, “I don’t matter” and not knowing how to pull themselves out of the cycle of loneliness.

The most ironic thing about feeling alone is that you’re actually not alone. Millions of people around the world feel exactly the same way. It’s learning how to deal with the issue and ward off feelings of loneliness that can make the real difference between you and everyone else.

Social worker Pandora MacLean-Hoover says one of the best ways to combat loneliness is to acknowledge the feelings are there and tell someone about it. Finding someone to confide in and talk to can help you deal with the issue and move into a happier frame of mind.

“The uncomfortable feelings are there. They are not going to go away on their own,” she said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

“It’s good to acknowledge them and then try to think differently.”

Simple things like volunteering, joining a club, or learning a new skill in a group environment can help and open up opportunities to meet new people and socialise.

At the end of the day, it’s about learning to deal with loneliness in a healthy and productive way, and putting ourselves out there to meet new people and combat the issue once and for all.

Have you ever dealt with feelings of loneliness? Do you have any advice for anyone who feels lonely?

  1. A problem that is often overlooked I feel and when help is sought the advice seems to be ‘join a club or something’…..often the lonely person is quite out of practice at mixing with other folks…..if they weren’t they would not be lonely surely… needs to offered in stages to acclimatise the lonely person to learn to mix again but this particular type of help is particularly hard to find… has to be determined but it is all too easy to lose heart and give up…..

  2. I have found with my husband away all week that loneliness is always there. I combat it by keeping myself busy. I volunteer, belong to a craft group and have joined U3A. So days are full and productive. Nights are the worst. I tend to do a lot of craft while watching a dvd. I do that until I am exhausted and then I know I will sleep. Being a member of this site has also been wonderful. The articles keep me interested and I have digitally met some great people. I am afraid that from my point of view you really have to help yourself. Other people can support you, like my husband, he is so happy that I have a full life during the week when he is not here. He enjoys hearing all my news. Loneliness leads to depression and to mental and physical illness. Lonely people need the support of family to encourage them to get out of the house and get involved in the community. I know it can be scary but it is in my opinion the only way.

    • Debbie, that is so well put. I don’t experience loneliness at all – often alone but never lonely.

    • Well stated Debbie and I agree. The one thing I did pick up on in your reply was that your husband supports you and that he listens to you about your time. Communication (whether being married or single) is a vital part of our lives and makes us think that we are being heard and appreciated. It really does make a big difference.

    • It’s hard when your husband is away especially if you are close and enjoy each other’s company. Mine was away too sometimes weeks at a time, but the kids were young and I worked so keep busy, but in saying that it had its own set of problems too. I was still lonely and missed and so did the kids.

    • My husband was in the Forces and, as such, was away for months at a time. I tried to keep very busy and the day time wasn’t a problem, but the evenings could be very lonely…..and I couldn’t just pick up the phone and talk to him – or to relatives because not many people had phones. I am in a Ladies’ Club and many of them are very lonely and depressed…..families who don’t phone or visit them. Great for those who don’t need people around them, but very sad for those who do need people. Loneliness is a killer.

    • Christina Smith That was my situation also. Then when it was time to be home full time Ke passed away so there you go. That was a long time ago and not much has changed.

  3. I agree it is so hard to put yourself out there. I am not often alone thanks to family but I am very lonely.

  4. It has often been said that ‘you could be in a crowded room, yet feel lonely’. Loneliness is a serious issue, more so if you have lost someone you love or they just may not be around anymore. Same as friends or pets or even freedom. Some groups are provided for loneliness and is helpful for those who like to mix with other people. Having said that, some of these people have a great time but once home, they feel left out or lonely again. I believe depression sets in for some and people do give up. From my own personal experience, even though I divorced in 1997, I sought not to remarry or even go on a date. I have my children, selected friends and other interests that keep me occupied. I make my own peace by doing what I like and want to do. I make a point to say hello to people as I pass them if eye contact is made. Maybe that one hello is enough to make a person forget of loneliness just for that second. Point is, perhaps make an effort, share a moment with someone or get involved with a group. I don’t profess to be an expert, but loneliness can be overcome. I know that I am never lonely even being by myself. Just my opinion.

    • I think you have hit on an important point Victor. We can all do our little bit in society to make that eye contact, nod and smile,engage the person sitting next to you on the bus or in the supermarket. Those little gestures can make someone who feels lonely feel a bit more connected,and might help lift their spirit even if momentarily.

    • Catharine Keevill. That is absolutely right. One does not need to be full on or try too hard, but a little thing such as a small gesture as you said, can and does make a big impact to someone’s life. Thank you.

    • Cost nothing to smile and say gidday..but it just might make that persons day brighter. I love looking at older people faces after i do that…always feels good.

    • Lee Leary. It does doesn’t it. The thing I notice about ‘older’ people is that they like good manners and will respond with a kind word of gratitude. This is how they were raised and believe in politeness which is a good thing. They would feel good within knowing that someone has taken a little time and acknowledged them. That’s all it takes.

    • Victor you said so well, connection and communication are so important. We need to pass it on. A small gesture can go a long way, kindness is so important. People are important.

    • Christina Smith. People are important indeed. Showing kindness to someone even a stranger could make the difference between hope and despair.

    • I walk every day and always make a point of making eye contact and passing the time of day. Some reply some go merrily on their way.

  5. As we age we lose contact with some of our friends, for all sorts of reasons, some intentional some not. We tend to get “stuck” in our ways & that in itself can lead to isolation, just in our thinking,or by being stubborn. The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks ” doesn’t have to apply cause you “can” change, if you want to. Sometimes its hard for people to ask for help…
    something for all to think about.
    I annoy my old friends…i keep in touch with them,if they dont want to reciprocate no problem, but that’s me and i’m lucky and very greatful to have so many.
    Personally i like making new ones too,life too short to be alone!

  6. I must admit while I was working I didn’t have time to be lonely, however when I was planing to retire it was the one thing I gave plenty of thought to because I lived in the house my kids grew up in and over the years all of my original neighbours had slowly moved away and replaced by young families. This was the reason I decided to move to a village with people my own age, I know it’s not for everyone but it suits me very nicely as I can participate as much or as little as I like with my friends I have made since moving here. Life is wonderful!

    • Trish I must be going crazy in my old age because I have just joined a drama group. Quite frankly it is my worst nightmare because I hate being the center of attention but it was my New Year resolution to challenge myself. So drama it is. Lord knows how it will go, I am feeling very nervous. Going gaga. lol

      • Karen O'Brien-Hall  

        Well done Debbie – I’ve been involved in amateur theatre for many years and although the acting is wonderful, groups also need someone to hem the curtains, serve the coffee, sell the tickets, operate the lighting and sound, etc, etc. I have never felt old in these groups because everyone has a common goal. I have friends I made 40 years ago through the theatre/drama. But be prepared for the “speed dating” feeling about some of these contacts. After a show ends, some of the people you have spent so much time with will move on to another show, another set of “friends”. Personally, I loved seeing audience members outside the theatre and they would look at you (and you at them) with that “I know you, but where from” look. I was at a concert at QPAC when a lady said to me “don’t I know you from somewhere”. She had been a subscriber at the theatre, in Sydney and moved to Queensland about 3 years ago. We now have a date for coffee. Look forward to hearing your experiences, as they say in the theatre “Chookas” (good luck).

    • Debbie I’m sure you will have fun when you get in to it, just sit back and enjoy yourself.

    • Relax Debbie, all you have to do is what you want, help with the set,wardrobe take tickets anything, you will become part of a small group and make friends, it will have you thinking and planing too, but if you don’t feel comfortable walk away no harm done. You said it , we have to work at it push the envelope. Good luck keep us informed. 😊

  7. I must come from another planet … I do not need or want constant companionship. I can be quite content with my own company. Depression can exacerbate loneliness… But you can be lonely in a crowd of people.

    • Linda we come from the planet of confident self reliant independent people who appreciate their own company and the peace of solitude. There are a few of us out there but we are seen as unusual.

    • Adrienne Linington. That also is true. My family and friends are always trying to set me up on dates or ask why don’t I remarry or whatever, but I tell them (besides being too late for me), that I enjoy my life as it is. I don’t need to be co-dependent and that my social life is just fine. Good intentions by them but they don’t quite understand that one does not always need a lifetime companion and can be happy and confident within.

    • Thank goodness someone else relates to my way of thinking. If I read one more well meaning article about looking out for older members of the community. Well !!! If anyone knocks on my door they will get short shrift. I am a crusty curmudgeon. πŸ™‚

    • Linda Morse……. but please spare a thought for folks that do not have your strength or independence πŸ˜ƒ

    • Victor Watson why do you think it’s too late for you? I am also quite happy with my own company, l keep busy messing about with my hobbies, only one regret, l’m not brave enough to go prospecting on my own

    • Yes I like my own company too, but there is a difference, some people don’t see anyone for days, or the phone doesn’t ring, its when you live years alone, that they are talking about, not just the alone times we all yearn for… There is a difference… People live alone but have friendships and yes, can pick and chose when to stay home alone, but when its for months/years on end its soul destroying.

    • You’re from the same planet as me Linda. I live alone and love it. Almost resent any intrusion. lol

    • just wondering though that when & if your mobility or independence decreases ..will you become one of those Lonely people ???

    • Jennifer Anderson
      I have been living on my own for 8 years and sometimes when the phone rings I don’t answer it. I often go a week without seeing or talking to anyone. Even when I go shopping I do it at 7am so I am in and out before too many others are in the shop. I don’t feel lonely at all. And my soul certainly hasn’t been destroyed.

    • Sharon McPherson Not chance as I read and paint and can fill in a day almost without moving. lol

    • Jackie Jones. Oh I just think that I had my time and I appreciate all that was in my life. I have no regrets but I know I could have done things not differently, but better. I am like a used car, bit dented and scratched lol. I did contemplate finding someone a long time ago but decided I would not be a very good catch. Having said that, I am happy and enjoy life and being an author of early history, I spend my time travelling, researching and writing. All is good but thanks for asking.

    • Victor Watson That sounds wonderful. I doubt you’d find somone who would come up to your standards. YOU are the ‘good catch’.

    • Faye Montaine. Thank you very much. I think in all honesty, it’s not about coming up to my standards but respecting each other’s standards and on what each contribute to make life enjoyable. Communication by way of listening and understanding with a voice and actions are fundamental to having a successful relationship. Enjoy your night and be happy for tomorrow is a new beginning.

    • I do wonder how assumptions are made. For the record I am married but do not want well meaning but ill informed people enquiring if we are OK. I am concerned for those who suffer from depression having suffered from it myself I know what it is like. We are simply a private couple and wish to remain that way. Should we suffer from an infirmity or require help we will ask for it. People assume that if you maintain a distance and personal space and are older you are automatically in need of rescuing. The headline is designed to cause alarm and isensationalises the situation. At least my comment stimulated comment.

    • Victor Watson I agree with your last comment, respect and understanding has to go both ways.

    • Jennifer Anderson rubbish, I have been living by myself for 15 years now and I am not “soiled destroyed”.

  8. I’m lonely , I hate living alone ..its just so cut and dried isn’t it ..

  9. Debbie Bryant – I agree, you have to find what suits you and just get in there and do it. I’m just about to put my house on the market and move back to NSW from Queensland – need the four seasons again, and so have felt quite lonely up here because I haven’t been settled – partly my fault, I guess, as I’m still trying to find where I belong since I was widowed. Have all sorts of plans to join, learn, travel etc, but to be able to share would improve things a lot. The fundamental loneliness goes, whenever two can dream a dream together. (as Antonio Carlos Jobim has said) Love my music and that helps.

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