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A study out of Brigham Young University concluded that the health effects of loneliness can have the equivalent impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day on your overall health. And in Canada, one in five people identify as being lonely. This time of year, in particular, can be difficult—especially if you’re experiencing social isolation and feelings of loneliness. We asked Dr. Shelia Wijayasinghe to break down everything we need to know about feeling lonely, including who is most at risk, the effects it can have on our physical health, how to combat it and more.

WHERE AND WHEN DO WE GET LONELY?

Historically we have seen this being an issue for the elderly – but we see now through research that loneliness is something that peaks in adolescents and young adults and again in our older years.

There are specific risk factors that seem to make people more vulnerable to loneliness:

  • Grieving the death of a spouse/loved one
  • Separation from friends or family
  • People who are transitioning– retirement, new school, moving, new parents
  • Loss of mobility/lack of transportation
  • Hearing/vision loss: makes it difficult to communicate and connect, increasing isolation
  • People who are affected by poverty/discrimination tend to also have higher rates of loneliness including individuals who are visible minorities, LGBQTS2

AGING COMMUNITY AND ISOLATION

One in five Canadians aged 65 or older indicated that they felt lonely some of the time or often in a recent study and this was even higher among those 85 years or older – 25% of individuals in that age bracket felt lonely some of the time or often. Aging population are at higher risk because they are more often living alone/widowed/loss of friends, have more health problems and disability, and sensory impairment such as hearing loss and loss of mobility. There is also broken heart syndrome – if someone you know loses a partner, it’s a difficult time for them. This is an important time to check in with people at this time.

  • Don’t forget our friends and family/neighbors in this age group
  • Visits, calls can make a difference
  • We have a collective responsibility to help

BEING ALONE VS. BEING LONELY

Loneliness is the unpleasant feeling of being separated or divided from others.People who feel lonely describe the inability to connect deeply with others. Loneliness is something we have all experienced, and it is fluid in that it can come and go, or persist in the longer term. It is important to differentiate this from social isolation, which is an objective physical separation from others. While the terms loneliness and social isolation are used interchangeably, it is possible to feel lonely while around others and you can be physically alone or isolated and not feel lonely.

EFFECTS ON PHYSICAL HEALTH

Both loneliness and social isolation can have a negative impact on our health. Previously we had thought that simply being alone was unhealthy due to lifestyle things like not going out as much, less exercise, poorer diets and we used this as an explanation for why these individuals had more diseases – but studies are showing that loneliness itself is a risk factor for disease.

Studies have shown that, beyond the emotional effect of loneliness, there is an actual affect upon our biology when we are lonely. There was an interesting study done several years ago that followed 141 people for several years with questionnaires about loneliness. When they stated they were lonely, blood tests were done to monitor what was happening in their bodies.What was found that when people were lonely, the usual flight or fight response was activated (in the form of fighter cells being produced and adrenaline like neurotransmitters) in these individuals during periods of loneliness even when they weren’t in physical threat.

When the fight/flight response is turned on for too long or sent into overdrive inappropriately as it is in those who experience loneliness chronically, it leads to inflammation that can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, diabetes and obesity. If the inflammation occurs in our brain, that can lead to dementia. We may also notice that we get sick more often as our immune systems are impaired. The overall risk of death also increases in those who have chronic loneliness, at about 26% in those who voice loneliness as a concern – comparable to risks of smoking and obesity.

SIGNS OF LONELINESS

It can be difficult to identify the signs as these individuals may also be isolating themselves – so unless we are actively thinking of these people, they can be missed. There are no specific signs to look out for apart from seeing someone isolate themselves or disconnect  – so definitely check in with these individuals.

Thinking about who have may be at risk of loneliness and reaching out to those who have gone through loss (especially during anniversaries/holidays) and those who are going through major transitions in their lives– separation, loss, new job, new school, move, new motherhood/parenthood. Check in on your strong friends, because this can happen to anybody.

TECHNOLOGY AND ISOLATION

Social media is meant to connect us, but it can often leave us feeling disconnected, comparing ourselves to others and can make us feel worse. Research has shown that high use of the Internet is linked to loneliness, social anxiety and depression. It seems that the way in which we interact with social media can lead to both increases and decreases in loneliness, depending on how it is used.

When social technologies are used to connect with people and maintain existing relationships, they can reduce loneliness. But when Internet use replaces offline interactions with others instead of acting as a supplement to relationships, it can increase feelings of loneliness.

Some tips:

  • Put limits on your phone– settings or a timer on your phone for social media
  • Take a tech holiday
  • Make a concerted effort to not have it on while socializing, turning off the ringer, and physically separate yourself from your phone/tech device
  • Don’t do it at night, as it affects sleep

HOW MUCH HEALTHY ALONE TIME?

The key piece here that is that you are choosing to spend time alone. If being alone is not a choice, this can be difficult and contribute to loneliness. Being alone can be a recharge: some alone time is healthy and has been found to improve creativity confidence and regulate/calm emotions to better interact with others. There is no specific amount of alone time that is seen to be healthy – it’s really based on personal choice and how you feel. If you want to build in alone time, start small and build up to a place of comfort where you feel refreshed but not isolating yourself.

HOW TO COMBAT LONELINESS

Research on interventions to deal with social isolation is currently inconsistent and inconclusive – more research needs to be done. What the research is focusing on is based on that we do know: that individuals who engage in meaningful productive activities with others live longer, stable mood and improved cognitive function. So, intuitively, getting a pet or a new hobby would help. Here are some other, specific interventions to help combat loneliness:

BUILDING COMMUNITY

  • Provides sense of identity and belonging
  • Take up a hobby to get out of house, connect with other like-minded individuals
  • Pets – yes!
  • Mixed living spaces of the young and old have been found to be helpful across generations; inter-generational learning exchange programs exist to bring people together to participate in projects and to teach each other skill sets, like tech
  • The Freebird club – a social version of Air bnb for people over 50, meant to allow people to stay together while travelling with the added  purpose of social interaction.

SOCIAL PRESCRIPTION

There are prescription from health care providers for activities that build community, such as music groups, dance lessons, museum visits, coffee talks, gardening. This is thought to foster meaningful connections, and if patients receive support to become more physically and socially active and adopt healthier lifestyle habits, the thinking goes, they are likely to need fewer medications, doctors’ appointments and hospital visits.

To date, this has shown that people report increased in activity, sleep and diet and improved mental health. Initial findings show that people use hospital services less than those who do not use the social prescribing service.

Who do you tell when you’re sick?