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 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.”

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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.

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“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?