Loneliness: A Growing Health Concern
Most of us feel lonely at one time or another, but many adults experience ongoing, chronic loneliness over time. That loneliness can take a tremendous toll on physical and emotional health.
An estimated one in three older adults is lonely, according to a 2010 survey by AARP. Married adults were least likely to be lonely (29 percent) and never-married were most likely to be lonely (51 percent). Other research has found that among all adults, those under 25 or over 65 are more likely to be lonely.1
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Loneliness is not necessarily the same as being alone. Loneliness usually refers to the distress people feel when their actual social involvement and relationships are not what they want them to be, such as feeling left out or alone when you’d prefer to be involved or interacting with others. Some people may be content being alone a great deal and not feel lonely. Others may be around people much of the time and still feel lonely. People view meaningful relationships differently.
Many studies have found links between loneliness and a variety of physical and mental health concerns.2,3 Researchers at the University of Chicago found that loneliness both affected and is affected by depressive symptoms.3 Recent research has found an association between loneliness and early brain changes in people with Alzheimer’s disease. People with greater amyloid burden, a biomarker of risk of Alzheimer’s disease, were more than seven times likely to report loneliness than those without.
Researchers have also identified physical changes associated with loneliness. For example, loneliness contributes to increased stress hormones, increased blood pressure and more disrupted sleep, which can contribute to a range of illnesses. Loneliness has been linked with a number of poor health concerns, such as a greater risk for heart attacks.
While loneliness has negative consequences, strong social connections and supportive relationships can provide many benefits. According to SAMHSA, having strong social ties can:
- Decrease stress during major life transitions
- Support mental health recovery
- Have a positive impact on well-being as we age
For people with serious mental illness, who are often socially isolated, social inclusion and connection can help increase self-esteem and improve overall functioning. Supportive, sustaining relationships can helping reduce crisis events and hospitalization and increase quality of life for people with mental illness, according to Mental Health America.
Public health agencies are using a variety of approaches to try to address loneliness and isolation. In 2011 five social service agencies in the United Kingdom established The Campaign to End Loneliness with efforts to raise awareness and a national hotline. Other researchers have found that helping older adults to go online resulted in increased social contacts, reduced loneliness and improved mental well-being.
A program developed by researchers at in Australia, called Groups 4 Health, provides training to help with social relationships and was found to significantly improved mental health (depression, anxiety, stress), well-being, and social connectedness. The Institute on Aging in San Francisco has established a 24-hour hotline for older adults and adults with disabilities. The Friendship Line provides both crisis intervention services and non-urgent emotional support, reassurance and referrals. Mental Health America has developed a program using peer supports and psychiatric rehabilitation to help people with serious mental illness build networks of friends.
Researchers looking at loneliness concluded that “efforts to combat loneliness, particularly among older persons, may play an important role in improving well-being, minimizing chronic illness, and prolonging life.”2
- Victor CR, Yang K. The prevalence of loneliness among adults: a case study of the United Kingdom. J Psychol. 2012 Jan-Apr;146(1-2):85-104.
- Ong, AD, Uchino, BN, and Werthington, E. Loneliness and Health in Older Adults: A Mini-Review and Synthesis. Gerontology. Published online Nov. 6, 2015.
- Caciappo, JT and Caciappo, S. Social Relationships and Health: The Toxic Effects of perceived Social Isolation. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2014; 8(2):58-72.