A six year study has found that loneliness is twice as unhealthy as obesity for older people.
Scientists tracked over 2,000 people aged 50 and over and found that the loneliest were twice as likely to die as the least lonely, reports the Guardian.
When comparing the average person in the study, those who reported being lonely had a 14% greater risk of dying. This figure means that loneliness has around twice the impact on an early death as obesity. The risk of an early death increased by 19% if the person was in poverty.
A study of loneliness in older people in Britain in 2012 found that over a fifth felt lonely all the time and a quarter became lonelier over five years. Half of those who took part in the survey said that their loneliness was worse at weekends and three-quarters suffered more at night.
Previous studies have linked loneliness to a range of health problems ranging from high blood pressure and a weakened immune system to a greater risk of depression. John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, says that the pain of loneliness is similar to physical pain.
Cacioppo said the world was experiencing a “silver tsunami” as baby boomers reached retirement age. “People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality,” he said. “We have mythic notions of retirement. We think that retirement means leaving friends and family and buying a place down in Florida where it is warm and living happily ever after. But that’s probably not the best idea. We find people who continue to interact with co-workers after retirement and have friends close by are less lonely. Take time to enjoy yourself and share good times with family and friends. Non-lonely people enjoy themselves with other people.”
Researchers found that some people were happy living a life of solitude, however others still felt lonely and their mental health suffered due to this. The findings suggest that people needed to feel involved and valued by those to the them and that company alone was not enough.
Caroline Abrahams at Age UK said the study added to a growing body of research showing that being lonely not only made life miserable for older people, but also made them more vulnerable to illness and disease.
“It’s time we took loneliness seriously as a threat to a happy and healthy later life. We need to do more to support older people to stay socially connected. This is a big part of our job at Age UK and everyone can help by being a good friend or neighbour to the older people they know,” she said.
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