Bustling city workers and isolated housewives have all reported loneliness. It’s a pervasive problem in schools and nursing homes, and it occurs throughout society.
Despite how common loneliness is, it remains under the radar. That’s why it’s even more difficult to find a simple, all-encompassing fix.
Loneliness is a word we are all familiar with, but it may take experiencing it to truly understand this complex phenomenon. When it comes to loneliness, do we really understand what it means for our health?
Understanding the Loneliness Epidemic
Who suffers from loneliness?
As people get older, they begin to lose the people they love. They may be admitted to a nursing home and only see relatives once a month during visiting hours. Perhaps they start to forget their fondest memories.
It comes as no surprise that the loneliness epidemic is proliferating throughout our senior societies. Recent science has proven loneliness to be of significant concern to public health, particularly to the elderly. With 40% of women over the age of 75 living alone – that’s eating, sleeping, working, thinking alone – it is clear that loneliness has settled on an easy target.
In 2004, one-quarter of Americans felt they lacked a companion with whom they felt confident confiding in. With such a high occurrence of people suffering, it seems hard to believe that this under-cover beast could ever be tackled effectively.
A compounding factor is that loneliness is often coupled with a lack of acceptance in those experiencing it. But even if acceptance can be reached, speaking out about such an issue of self-esteem can seem daunting, further exacerbating the intrusion of isolation.
Without better integration of aged individuals into communities with which they can connect, our extended life expectancy as a nation can only worsen this trend towards loneliness.
Is there a loneliness scale?
Although loneliness as a research focus has generally taken a back seat, shunned for not being a ‘real’ disease or public health issue, there have always been a few passionate individuals holding up the field.
For years, researchers have worked towards generating reliable ‘scales’ of loneliness. Without such a scale, prescriptions will be harder to fine-tune to each individual’s specific level of loneliness. This complex web of hormonal human perception has been hard to unravel.
By monitoring a person’s perceived levels of companionship, isolation and whether or not they simply feel left out, health researchers have been able to provide a measure for this depressing diagnosis.
Cynics, however, are not so easily convinced. It has been argued that the ‘bar’ for loneliness is set too low during research and that, in fact, low levels of loneliness can be beneficial for a healthy lifestyle.
How to overcome loneliness
Whether we’re cynical or not about a specific diagnosis, Britain's recent appointment must speak for something. The nation recently created a new position, appointing Tracey Crouch to act as the country's Minister for Loneliness.
In the United States, most people over the age of 60 are currently experiencing loneliness. Loneliness is linked to depression, diabetes and cancer. It is also known to reduce life expectancy more than heavy smoking or obesity.
Affected individuals are reaching out, forging false ailments to attract the attention of a friendly physician. Most are simply in need of a companion, with whom they can while away an hour or two at best.
Without interventions, and global acceptance of loneliness as a contemporary public health issue, such isolation, seclusion and social segregation will continue to rise, putting pressures on our aging population’s quality of life.