How loneliness could be killing us 27



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It’s safe to say we all know the lifestyle factors that ensure a long and healthy life: exercise regularly, eat well, don’t smoke, drink alcohol sparingly, get regular check ups.

But are you protected against what some experts are predicting could be the next epidemic?

Research from Brigham Young University has shown that loneliness and social isolation are just as much a threat to longevity as obesity.

“Not only are we at the highest recorded rate of living alone across the entire century, but we’re at the highest recorded rates ever on the planet,” said Tim Smith, co-author of the American study.

“With loneliness on the rise, we are predicting a possible loneliness epidemic in the future,” he told a psychology publication.

Loneliness or social isolation can look very different depending on the person affected.

For some, it’s a case of being surrounded by people but having no one with whom you really “click”. No one you feel you can really talk to or could turn to in a crisis.

Meanwhile, other lonely people may say they prefer keeping to themselves. Which is fine… until it isn’t. Enjoying one’s own company is one thing, being isolated from others for prolonged periods is simply bad for your health.

Studies have shown that humans – who are essentially social animals – feel social pain as acutely as more tangible forms. Feeling lonely activates the same parts of the brain as physical pain, triggering associated stress hormones.

In the Brigham Young study, which was published in May, researchers analysed data from more than three million participants taken from a variety of sources.

Taking into account socioeconomic status, age, gender, and pre-existing health conditions, they found that the absence or presence of social support had a prominent effect on people’s health.

Prior research from the same authors pitched the impact on mortality from loneliness at the same level as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and being an alcoholic.

“The effect of [loneliness] is comparable to obesity, something that public health takes very seriously,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the lead study author. “We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.”

So how many of us are actually suffering from this condition, and how can we find a way out of loneliness?

According to a 2012 Australia Institute report, one in three Australians is suffering from loneliness, and social researcher Hugh Mackay calls it the “global warming of demographics.

“We saw it coming, we know what the causes are but it’s very hard to counteract,” he told the Australian Women’s Weekly.

By 2030, it’s expected that one in three households will be home to just one person. And it’s no coincidence that number matches the number of lonely people out there. Living alone is one of the highest risk factors for feeling isolated in a fast paced society where it’s more common for families to live apart.

A social worker who sees plenty of lonely people told The Weekly that they often take it personally, thinking people don’t like them and that’s why they are alone. Many have moved away from their community to be closer to their adult children, only to find they have lost their social support network and their kids and grandkids don’t fill the void.

There are various ways to combat loneliness but for people who are trapped in a spiral of isolation and its common bedfellow depression, it’s a matter of taking the plunge and putting oneself “out there”, which can be confronting.

Volunteering, community clubs, choirs and other groups are all ways to make new friends, while other suggestions are getting a pet and talking to strangers you see out and about.

As with any great health risk, of course, the best course of action is prevention: making the effort to maintain friendships, reaching out to family members and showing up uninvited sometimes.

Tell us, are you one of the many people who feels lonely? What barriers do you face to social connection? And for those who have overcome loneliness, what advice do you have to give?


Starts at 60 Writers

The Starts at 60 writers team seek out interesting topics and write them especially for you.

  1. This site – thank you – is my saviour. I live out of town and don’t have a car, so socialising isn’t easy.

  2. It’s hard to get out and meet new friends. Tried some groups but sometimes they seem cliquey . Nice at the event but nothing outside that . Keep trying I guess

    1 REPLY
    • I am the same…I have trouble meeting new people because I am an intravert and no matter how hard I try to change that it doesnt happen

  3. I live alone. I like it – most of the time. I do drive so I go for small drives, I go to the movies every now and then. I go to places that don’t cost much, like the museum with its ever changing displays. I have a little dog. She keeps me amused and it means I need to walk on a regular basis. I think a pet, even a budgie is a good thing. I also converse with the neighbours, not live in their pockets, but since I have been ill, some have been very kind. Then as Libbi says, getting online. I have some wonderful, encouraging friends, especially on this site. I do get lonely, but not as bad as it used to be. A site like this, gives us a chance to be caring of others and have someone keeping an eye on us.

    3 REPLY
    • I would be like you. I am very content with my own company,but then again I love people so enjoy a yarn anywhere anytime! I reckon a pet is an essential and gives more than it takes. Glad to hear you’re on the mend Fran.xx

    • I live on my own too and im content ….somtimes I get lonely but have a great net work of friends that come and stay occassionally so that helps

    • I’m still looking to the heavens looking for that elusive pilot in the Tasmainian skies. Lol, you are an inspiration to some of us Fran, don’t doubt that.

  4. I have always been happy with my own company so loneliness rarely sticks its head over the horizon. My only worry is will I be able to do all of the things I have in my bucket. I must admit I have squeesed a lot of things into my 72 years. B|

  5. I can imagine living alone & no company in the evenings would be depressing. If you are healthy & mobile and able to go to social clubs & maybe do a bit of volunteering would get you over that ‘hump’ but if disabled & with no family it would be miserable. I know when you get older lots of your mates have died & that can help you feel lonely. Sad sad situation indeed. A lot depends on our mental state & mobility to get through.

  6. I couldn’t care less what will be will be if you worry about every little thing that gets shoved down our throats you might as well give up living to hell with it

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