lonelyFeelings of extreme loneliness can increase an older person’s chances of premature death by 14%, according to research from the US.

Professor John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago says he found major differences in the rate of decline in physical and mental health between lonely and socially engaged older people in a meta-analysis of people who reached the age of 65 in 2010.

Physical isolation is less of a problem than what Prof Cacioppo called the “subjective sense of isolation” experienced by some older people. Older people who have satisfying relationships rebound better mentally and physically than lonely older people because they are more able to “bounce back” from adversity, he added.

The report suggests that the consequences to health of isolation are dramatic, including disrupted sleep, elevated blood pressure, increased morning rises in the stress hormone cortisol, altered gene expression in immune cells, increased depression and lower overall subjective wellbeing. 

'Crisis of isolation'
These findings add to the growing body of evidence showing the profound impact loneliness can have on health with 17% of older people in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and over half of all people aged 75 and over living alone.

Commenting on the findings, Helen Willis, dietician at Wiltshire Farm Foods, said: “For healthcare professionals working in the community, it will come as no surprise that loneliness is more detrimental to health than obesity or poverty, particularly for older people. We know that mobility declines in later life, but add to this the impact of an ageing population, who increasingly live away from their nuclear family and the decline of tight-knit ‘neighbourly’ communities, and we are faced with a crisis of social isolation in later life.

"In a world where our older communities don’t have families and friends to look out for them, it is even more important that healthcare professionals and community groups can spot the early indicators of health issues, like malnutrition, which can be severely impacted by living alone.”

Following the findings, the Campaign to End Loneliness has renewed its call for Health and Wellbeing Boards to provide further support. Currently, more than half of all health and wellbeing boards with published strategies have not recognised that loneliness is an issue that needs addressing.

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