Ask anyone, young or old, who lives alone what their worst problem is and the chances are that you’ll get the same answer…loneliness.
In younger people this can often by addressed by encouraging them to connect with a community in some way, maybe even online to begin with but that can bring its own dangers. Much of the damage done by internet bullying is due to the feeling of isolation and ostracism that it entails.
In older people, however, the problem is often exacerbated by the fact that they have lost people already and may not be predisposed to adapting to new relationships.
The dramatic cutbacks to social services in recent years has meant that the whole notion of home visits just for the sake of providing some contact with the outside world has had to be abandoned for lack of resource.
Yet increasing amounts of research indicate that this is an entirely false economy because loneliness itself can have a disastrous effect on the physical health of the individual, not just a psychological trauma.
Loneliness has already been linked to a reduction in the efficiency of the immune system and to higher blood pressure, both very dangerous medical conditions, but new evidence has suggested that it increased the risk of a stroke by 32%.
The researchers examined data on 181,000 adults from 23 different studies all published before May 2012.
They found that 4,628 of the patients had suffered coronary heart disease episodes (including heart attacks, angina and death) and a further 3,002 had suffered strokes.
By cross referencing the data on the records they were able to determine that among those members of the study group defined as ‘lonely’ there was an 29% increased risk of heart problems as well as a 32% increased risk of stroke.
The effect was roughly the equivalent of high stress and anxiety.
Although the link is clear, according to the researchers, there is no direct physiological link to be traced between the two sets of figures.
It is suggested that people on their own are less likely to take proper care of themselves by cooking and eating properly, and are more likely to succumb to habits like smoking or drinking heavily. Others suggest that the misery of loneliness itself makes the individual more likely to ignore any health issues until it is too late.
It may well be that both assumptions are true, but even though more research is needed to pin down the causal link there is already far too much evidence to ignore the need for social policy to include some initiative to reconnect lonely people.
Even in terms of sheer fiscal planning it is cheaper to make someone happier now than to deal with their serious illness later.
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