Is loneliness the ‘silver tsunami’?

If you regularly feel lonely, you’re not alone. And the likelihood is that if you are concerned about loneliness, your health will be suffering.

Health insurance company Cigna and market research firm Ipsos recently surveyed more than 20,000 Americans aged 18 years and older and found:

  • 46 per cent felt alone either sometimes or always
  • 47 per cent felt left out
  • 27 per cent felt that their relationships were not meaningful
  • 43 per cent felt isolated
  • 20 per cent rarely or never felt close to people
  • 18 per cent didn’t feel like there are people they can talk to
  • only 53 per cent have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as an extended conversation with a friend or quality time with family, on a daily basis.

Health studies say that loneliness can disrupt sleep, increase stress, weaken the immune system, accelerate cognitive decline and frailty and is linked to heart disease and depression. They argue that loneliness has such a significant effect on mortality rates that it could be considered a public health threat more harmful than obesity and akin to smoking.

US loneliness researcher John Cacioppo says loneliness among retirees is as high as 45 per cent and refers to the issue as the ‘silver tsunami’.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology in Utah, has analysed recent worldwide studies and says: “Many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic’. The challenge is, what can be done about it.”

We live in communities where it has never been easier to stay connected. The question, ‘Are the connections meaningful?’ is answered in this latest study.

Professor Stephen Houghton, director of the Child and Adolescent Related Disorders at the University of WA, says: “Loneliness is a major social, educational, economic and health issue that will reach epidemic proportions by 2030. At the moment there are no interventions. Where are they? I can’t find any.”

Professor Houghton says that while many countries have acknowledged the destructive power of loneliness, it is yet to be formally recognised as a public health issue in Australia.

A Lifeline survey conducted in 2016 found that 60 per cent of respondents “often” felt lonely. The survey also revealed that 55 per cent of callers to the Lifeline crisis line (13 11 14) lived alone, “often without strong support networks”.

Lifeline CEO Pete Shmigel said the findings showed the need for a whole community approach.

“For a society that is more technologically connected than we have ever been, these results suggest we’re overlooking good old-fashioned care and compassion when it comes to our mental health and wellbeing.

“Furthermore, with about 70 per cent of survey respondents having never called Lifeline or a similar service, we as a community need to be more mindful of how the people in our lives are coping, and send a strong message that no person in crisis should have to be alone – help is available.”

So, what can you do for yourself or a loved one experiencing loneliness?

Connecting or reconnecting with family or friends is a good place to start. If you’re not located close enough to see them in person, phone calls, email or social media can help. However, avoid completely substituting technology for the real thing.

Getting involved in local activities can help you make new friends and create a sense of belonging in the community. This could include volunteering, taking a class or joining a club or team. Even just spending time in a public space, such as a park, library or café, can foster a feeling of interaction and create opportunities for conversation.

If you’re lonely at home, consider adopting a pet.

Do you feel lonely and isolated? Do you know someone who is? What do you think needs to be done to address the problem?

Related articles:
Loneliness as we age
The power of volunteering
How about a street Happy Hour?

Written by Janelle Ward

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