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Why loneliness is more dangerous than you think

Now that social distancing has become the norm, the effects of loneliness on the elderly population has become a much debated topic. But the truth is, loneliness can affect anyone regardless of age. In fact, it’s much more common than you may think. Around 7% of adults in Europe feel frequently lonely. That’s roughly 30 million people! Unfortunately, loneliness is still a taboo subject. And this is a shame, because loneliness has a detrimental effect on health.

What defines loneliness?

Many people think being lonely is the same as being alone. This is a common misconception. Someone who lives alone and has few social contacts doesn’t necessarily have to be lonely. Whereas someone with a big family and circle of friends can still suffer from loneliness. Loneliness has to do with the inability to connect with others on a deeper level. It’s an unwanted lack of connection and closeness.

Social and emotional loneliness

Loneliness can occur when a lack of interaction with people and feelings of social isolation go on for a long period of time. In recent months, the issue of loneliness has been in the spotlight due to the current coronavirus crisis. There has been much attention in the media for elderly people living in care homes or independently, who are unable to receive visitors or go outside due to social distancing measures.

It is important to remember that social loneliness can – and does – affect anyone, of any age. Many young people are experiencing loneliness amid mounting pressure brought about by social media. They feel increasingly pressured to live the ‘perfect’ life as portrayed on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. This can lead to feelings of insecurity and a negative self-image, sometimes to the point that it stops teenagers from being socially active in the real world.

Emotional loneliness is another form of loneliness. If you suffer from this form of loneliness you may have friends and family in your life, but engagement with them is at a surface level. Interaction doesn’t feel connected in a way that is fulfilling. You may feel that no one ‘gets’ you or be afraid to be yourself when you’re around your friends.

What are the consequences of the loneliness?

We all feel lonely from time to time. But usually, these short-term bouts of loneliness subside. Long-term loneliness, however, can affect your health – physically and mentally. And by this, we don’t mean unpleasant but harmless symptoms such as headache and nausea. Long-term loneliness can put you at greater risk for serious conditions, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, which are characterised by symptoms such as memory loss and cognitive deterioration.
  • Cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attack or stroke (intracranial haemorrhage);
  • Depression. People who are lonely often get stuck in a negative spiral of pessimistic thoughts and feelings of emptiness, sadness or meaninglessness. Furthermore, research has shown that loneliness is associated with the development of suicidal thoughts.

There is also a link between the physical and emotional problems resulting from loneliness and poor nutrition. People who are lonely are less inclined to care for themselves properly. This can result in:

  • Unhealthy eating habits.
  • Less exercise.
  • Smoking and/or alcohol use.
  • Sleep deprivation.

Loneliness is also associated with alcohol addiction and drug abuse. All these factors increase the chance of obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol which, in turn, are risk factors for serious conditions such as heart disease or Alzheimer’s disease.

Premature death caused by loneliness

The impact of long-term, or chronic, loneliness is so great that it may lead to an early death. German psychiatrist and neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer even claims that loneliness is twice as deadly as drinking alcohol and 20% more lethal than smoking. These numbers are not comforting by any means. For that reason, a key public health priority is to try to combat loneliness.

What can you do to keep from feeling lonely?

There are many things you can do if you are feeling lonely and depressed about it. Here are some tips:

  • Explore why you are feeling lonely. You need to explore the root of where these feelings are coming from before you can take further action. Are you a shy person? Are you afraid of what people may think about you? Or is the reason for your loneliness more practical? Perhaps you’re housebound because of a medical problem.
  • Get support. If you’ve got an idea why you are feeling lonely, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Your GP is a good place to start. They can refer you to a therapist or public health service.
  • Speak to someone. Nobody knows how you feel, until you tell them. Call a friend or family member and express how you feel. Tell them that you’re lonely and that you would like to be in touch more often. There are also online support groups. Would you rather not talk about your issues in a group setting? There are programmes, both online and offline, that offer one-on-one support.
  • Join a club. Explore hobbies and form bonds with new people over common interests. Do you enjoy being physically active? Join a sports club or walking group. Are you creative? Then an art group may be something for you. Are you an avid reader? Perhaps there’s a book club in your community. Joining a club can be a great way to meet people in a relaxed, obligation-free environment.
  • Adopt a pet! Research has shown that the companionship of a cat, dog or other furry friend can greatly reduce feelings of loneliness. Walking your dog is also a good way to meet people and strike up friendly conversation.
  • Seek treatment for physical or mental health problems. Do you suffer from physical or mental health problems that are related to loneliness? Don’t wait for symptoms to get worse. See your doctor and get checked out. In some cases, medication may be a solution. For example, depression can be treated successfully with antidepressants, and there are pharmaceutical solutions for health problems such as high blood pressure, alcohol addiction and sleep disorders.

How do you recognise and alleviate loneliness in others?

Is loneliness not an issue for you, but would you like to help those who are? People who are lonely tend to keep it to themselves and suffer in silence. This can make it difficult to tell if someone is lonely. So how do you recognise loneliness? A person may be lonely if they:

  • Have a scruffy appearance.
  • Avoid social interaction due to shame or depression.
  • Have poor social skills.

Do you know someone who is lonely or isolated? Try to get and stay in touch with them. Invite them over for a cup of coffee or go for a walk together. Or ring their doorbell for a chat. Sometimes just having someone to listen can make all the difference in the world. Offer help to people who are confined to their homes due to old age, illness or disability. See if they need help with their grocery shopping or show up with a jar of homemade soup at their doorstep.

There are also local charities that provide support for people who are lonely. If you want to volunteer to help prevent loneliness in your community, go online to search for organisations near you.

Sources:

Alzheimer Nederland. (n.d.). Is eenzaamheid een risicofactor voor dementie? (Is loneliness a risk factor for dementia?) Consulted on 25 May 2020 on https://www.alzheimer-nederland.nl/dementie/oorzaken-preventie/eenzaamheid

EU Science Hub. (2019, 14 June). How lonely are Europeans? Consulted on 25 May 2020 on https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/news/how-lonely-are-europeans

Happinez. (2018, 3 July). Voel jij je eenzaam? Deze tips van therapeuten helpen je op weg (Do you feel lonely? These tips from therapists will help you to do something about it). Consulted on 25 May 2020 on https://www.happinez.nl/groei/de-epidemie-van-eenzaamheid-dit-is-wat-je-er-zelf-tegen-kunt-doen/

Ministerie van Volksgezondheid, Welzijn en Sport (Ministry of Health, Welfare & Sport). (n.d.). Hoe kan ik eenzaamheid herkennen? (How do I recognise loneliness?) Consulted on 25 May 2020 on https://www.eentegeneenzaamheid.nl/dit-kun-jij-doen/hoe-kan-ik-eenzaamheid-herkennen/

Ministerie van Volksgezondheid, Welzijn en Sport. (2019, 10 September). Over eenzaamheid (About loneliness). Consulted on 25 May 2020 on https://www.eentegeneenzaamheid.nl/over-eenzaamheid/over-eenzaamheid/

RIVM (National Institute of Public Health and the Environment). (2018, 16 February). Eenzaamheid | Cijfers & Context | Oorzaken en gevolgen | Volksgezondheidenzorg.info (Loneliness | Figures & Context | Causes and Consequences | Volksgezondheidenzorg.info. Consulted on 25 May 2020 on https://www.volksgezondheidenzorg.info/onderwerp/eenzaamheid/cijfers-context/oorzaken-en-gevolgen#!node-gevolgen-van-eenzaamheid

van de Poll, W. (2018, 20 November). Eenzaamheid is twee keer zo dodelijk als alcohol (Loneliness is twice as deadly as alcohol). Consulted on 25 May 2020 on https://www.trouw.nl/nieuws/eenzaamheid-is-twee-keer-zo-dodelijk-als-alcohol~bb9c513a/?referer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F