When Theresa May was the UK Prime Minister, she appointed a Minister for Loneliness – charged with developing a strategy to combat the loneliness felt by more than 10 per cent of the British population.
Loneliness is unpleasant, isolating, and can have an impact on your psychological health – but what about your physical health? There’s a growing body of research suggesting it does have tangible negative health impacts – indeed, some are calling it an epidemic that may rival smoking or obesity in its overall impact on our health. New research in the British journal Heart adds to these early studies.
Hundreds of thousands of UK citizens reported who they lived with, how often they visited friends or families (or had visitors themselves), what leisure activities they were involved in and how lonely they felt. All this contributed to a score of each person’s social isolation and loneliness. Of those surveyed, nine per cent felt socially isolated, six per cent were lonely, and one per cent were both. The entire cohort of people was followed for more than seven years and the researchers tracked which people had a heart attack, stroke, or passed away.
The researchers found that social isolation and loneliness were associated with an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. But – and this is a key point – when factors like socioeconomic status, biological risk factors and health behaviours (like smoking and drinking) were accounted for, the contribution that isolation and loneliness made to a person’s increased risk were significantly reduced.
Does that mean we don’t have to worry about loneliness and isolation when it comes to our health? No. As the researchers note, being lonely or isolated are often the markers of other risky health factors – things like an unhealthy lifestyle, poor mental health or poverty.
The connection between all of these factors probably explains why loneliness is associated with poor health outcomes, but it may also mean that interventions to prevent loneliness could have flow-on effects to a person’s other health behaviours. What’s more, reducing social isolation increases a person’s support network – friends or family they can reach out to when times are difficult – which other research has shown has a beneficial effect on a person’s health.