Britain is on the brink of an epidemic, but not caused by a virus, unhealthy lifestyles or the food we eat.
Instead, one of the biggest emerging threats is chronic loneliness, a feeling of overwhelming isolation coupled with a lack of meaningful relationships that now affects 3.83 million people in the UK, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.
And perhaps surprisingly, the numbers show that people under 30 are the loneliest age group: 16-29 year olds are twice as likely to be chronically lonely as people over 70.
This is not the kind of temporary loneliness some may feel when the kids leave for college or a relationship ends, but rather an all-consuming, long-term feeling of isolation that reduces mental well-being.
“Loneliness is a major health issue that has continued to rise after the pandemic,” Robin Hewings, program director for community group Campaign to End Loneliness, told Good Health: “For some of us, life went back to normal after of the pandemic, but for others it hasn’t.’
Loneliness affects 3.83 million people in the UK, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics
And while it’s been known for some time that loneliness can be detrimental to your health, scientists are beginning to unravel why. For example, alarming new research has found that being alone can shrink our brains, increasing our risk of dementia.
Researchers at Kyushu University in Japan studied nearly 9,000 men and women aged 65 and over, counting the results of their brain MRIs with details of how much regular contact they had with family and friends.
The results, published in July in the journal Neurology, showed that those with the least social contact also had the smallest brain volumes, especially in parts like the hippocampus and amygdala that are linked to dementia. The researchers said it’s possible that a lack of social contact accelerates the gradual shrinking of the brain, which occurs as people age.
Other studies show that regular verbal and social encounters activate the nerve impulses necessary for the formation of new connections between brain cells, maintaining brain volume.
But this is not the only impact that loneliness has on health. In fact, in May, the US Surgeon General, the nation’s highest ranking physician, compared the health impact of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
Research shows that being socially isolated can reduce the life of a person over 60 by up to five years, compared to their peers who do not feel lonely, by increasing the risk of diseases such as cancer, heart disease and dementia.
A recent study, published in June in the European Heart Journal, looked at the risk of cardiovascular disease over a 10-year period in 18,509 UK adults with type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes itself is a significant risk for heart attacks and strokes, as it can lead to impaired circulation. But the study revealed that the risks were even greater, 26 percent higher, if those affected also lived an isolated existence, without friends or social contact.
But how can feeling left out of life have such a catastrophic effect on physical health?
One way is for the body to respond as if it were in danger, releasing the hormone cortisol, which increases heart rate and blood pressure, so that we are ready to fight or flee from the imminent threat. Chronic loneliness can cause persistent stress, which means that this cortisol response is permanently on.
Constant exposure to elevated cortisol, studies show, can increase blood pressure, blood glucose levels, cholesterol, and triglycerides, harmful fats in the blood.
A 2016 study published in the journal Heart, by researchers at Newcastle University, linked loneliness with a 30 percent increased risk of stroke or developing coronary heart disease.
Research shows that being socially isolated can reduce the life of someone over the age of 60 by up to five years, compared to their peers who do not feel lonely (file image)
Professor Chris Gale, a consultant cardiologist at the University of Leeds Medical School, told Good Health that loneliness can lead to stress levels high enough to damage the cardiovascular system.
“If you’re stressed, your body can release hormones like adrenaline, which cause your heart to race and your blood pressure to rise.”
Other mechanisms are being investigated, and because some people feel lonely even when surrounded by others, scientists are investigating whether loneliness and social isolation have different effects.
And it seems they do. Because while being alone or socially isolated can lead to walking slower and being slower to get up after sitting, social isolation alone also leads to poorer balance, according to a study published in Scientific Reports in 2020.
All the evidence suggests that getting out there and seeing more people is the answer. But it’s also the type of interaction that matters.
Psychologists at the University of Stirling found that the key to loneliness levels was physical contact with a friend or loved one, not just being in their company. The results, published in June in Scientific Reports, found that even among cohabiting couples, feelings of loneliness decreased when there was regular physical contact from simply holding hands or hugging.
And some old school hobbies can help too. In a US study from the University of Millersville in Pennsylvania, published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work in July, writing letters to pen pals was highly effective in combating isolation.
The researchers concluded: “Letter writing was a successful way to address loneliness and is different in many ways from email and text messages.”