What factor has the same health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, is as lethal as alcoholism, is twice as harmful as obesity, is associated with a 30 percent increased risk of having a stroke, leads to higher anxiety, and if addressed has a 50% increased likelihood of survival?  Having stronger social relationships! This staggering statistic is, therefore, something that needs to be included in the healthcare priorities as urgently as smoking, alcohol and obesity.

The interesting piece of the loneliness puzzle is what some psychologists have termed “the social media paradox” which describes how we are more ‘connected’ to other people than ever before, thanks to the internet and social media specifically, yet many of us are left feeling more isolated and lonely than ever before.

USA Health insurer Cigna recently did a survey which showed that nearly half of Americans report that they feel isolated, or alone at least some of the time.  Specifically, the survey found that millennials (ages 23-37) and Generation Z adults (18-22) are the loneliest of any other demographic and interestingly report having worse health than older generations.  These statistics along with alarming mental health in these generations require us to act now.

One of the first priorities in addressing loneliness is to distinguish between isolation and loneliness.  As one of the leading researchers of the health effects of loneliness Prof Holt-Lunstad states, “isolation is defined more by the actual size of one’s network or the frequency of contact”, whereas loneliness “is thought to be more of a subjective experience or perception of isolation, a discrepancy between one’s desired and actual level of connection”.  Additionally, she comments that “someone can be lonely but not isolated, or isolated but not lonely.”

There are also various forms of isolation.  An obvious one is a lack of friends but what about ‘medical isolation’.  This was experienced by a friend of mine who was recently diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at 35 years old.  She was only offered palliative care by the conventional medical system which leads to her experiencing ‘medical isolation’.

There are a multitude of solutions to address both loneliness and isolation and I’ll review these in my next piece.  In the meantime take some time to thank a friend or colleague for any support you have experienced in the last year and to let them know you are there for them.

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