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New research has revealed that loneliness and social isolation can increase a person’s risk of heart disease or stroke by 30 per cent.
Researchers from the University of York believe loneliness should be treated as a public health concern as it has also been previously linked to a compromised immune system, high blood pressure and premature death.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “Not only does loneliness make later life unbearably miserable - as this research shows, it’s awful for our health too. We know that lonely older people are more likely to suffer health problems and require long-term care, have a higher use of medication and need to visit their GP more often.
“This means that loneliness is placing further pressure on the NHS and social care services. With an ageing population, loneliness in later life will continue to increase unless something changes.
“Truly, no-one should have no-one in our society and the Government must recognise loneliness and isolation in later life as the serious health hazards they are, and work with others, including charities and the NHS, to tackle them.”
Researchers examined 23 studies involving more than 181,000 adults, where 4,628 coronary heart disease and 3,002 stroke events were recorded.
After analysing the data they found that loneliness and isolation were associated with a 29 per cent increase in risk for coronary heart disease (CHD) and a 32 per cent increase in risk of stroke.
Dr Nicole Valtorta, department of health sciences of University of York, said: “The main finding of our review, that isolated individuals are at an increased risk of developing CHD and stroke, supports public health concerns over the implications of social relationships for health and well-being.
“Our work suggests that addressing loneliness and social isolation may have an important role in the prevention of two of the leading causes of morbidity in high-income countries.
“Tackling loneliness and isolation may be a valuable addition to coronary heart disease and stroke prevention strategies. Health practitioners have an important role to play in acknowledging the importance of social relations to their patients.”
With more than one million people aged 65 and over suffering from loneliness, the Local Government Association’s community well-being spokeswoman Izzi Seccombe, suggests councils see this as a major public health concern.
“In the past it may have been treated as a trivial matter, but loneliness is a serious condition that can severely affect a person’s mental and physical well-being. Councils are addressing this through early intervention, with a number of local authorities leading the way in partnership with volunteer and community organisations.
“Loneliness is an issue that needs our urgent attention, and something that will become an increasingly important public health concern as people live longer lives,” she said.
A variety of interventions directed at loneliness and social isolation have already been developed, ranging from group initiatives such as educational programmes and social activities, to one-to-one approaches including befriending and cognitive-behavioural therapy.
Friends of the Elderly, a national charity, introduced Phoning Friends as a ‘social lifeline’ for people aged 60 and over.
The telephone befriending service was established after previous research revealed that half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, and two fifths all older people say that television is their main company.
Commenting on the importance of the initiative, Sally McLachlan, Phoning Friends’ partnerships manager, said: “Our Phoning Friends service is a social lifeline for older people who are lonely and isolated. We hear such wonderful stories from beneficiaries who get a lot of comfort and support from their Phoning Friends volunteers.
“Not only does a phone call make such a difference to the older person but we also find that the volunteer makes a wonderful friend to share stories from their life with too.
“When you have friends and are surrounded by people, it’s hard to imagine what it is like to be without anyone and all alone. Having a lack of friends is a crucial predictor of loneliness.”
For more information visit: http://www.fote.org.uk/