Alissa Paolella

By Alissa Paolella, communications coordinator for United Church Homes*

In the past 50 years, research into loneliness and social isolation has skyrocketed. Breakthroughs in genetics and immunology allow researchers to measure, with great precision, the impact of loneliness on long-term physical and psychological health.

It’s become a known, universal problem, one the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services labels an epidemic.

As researchers better understand the connections between loneliness and health, more people are bravely proclaiming, “I am lonely.”

Many have heard the alarming statistics:

  • Loneliness and isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
  • Two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful.
  • One in five Americans say they feel lonely or socially isolated.
  • One-third of people over age 45 are lonely.

Loneliness in the Time of COVID-19

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the levels of loneliness reported by all generations have led Great Britain to appoint a minister of loneliness whose job is to address the social determinants of health and well-being. Through those efforts, general practitioners in England will be able to refer patients experiencing loneliness to community activities and voluntary services by 2023. The practice is known as “social prescribing.”

Here in the United States, research has shown isolation and loneliness decrease productivity and job satisfaction. A study from the Center for Talent Innovation found that employees who feel they belong are three and a half times more likely to be motivated, productive and engaged.

Loneliness is costly for the economy. The National Institute for Health Care Management attributes an estimated $6.7 billion in annual federal spending to social isolation in older adults. Another study by AARP found socially isolated older adults incur $134 more per month in Medicare costs ($1,608 per year) compared with the average Medicare user.

Communities are beginning to rally around their most at-risk members, including older adults. How did we get here, and what can we do to change course and provide a sense of belonging to those around us?

Unfortunately, loneliness and mental illness carry a stigma that keeps those suffering from seeking help.

Defining Loneliness and Social Isolation

In her 2014 book, The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter, Susan Pinker defines loneliness as “the feeling of being bereft, deprived of intimacy, of hungering for companionship.”

One important factor for loneliness is choice, according to Louise Hawkley of the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. Some people are introverted, and all people choose to be alone at times. Solitude can be a time of rejuvenation and creativity. When you remove choice, the feeling becomes burdensome.

Bárbara Barbosa Neves, former associate director and researcher at the Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab at the University of Toronto, differentiates between isolation and loneliness. The former, she says, is a lack of quantity and quality of social ties, low participation in social activities, feelings of loneliness and lack of support. Loneliness, on the other hand, is a subjective feeling of not belonging or lacking companionship.

“Social isolation may lead to loneliness,” Neves has said, “but loneliness does not depend on social isolation, per se.”

The world has never been more connected by technology, but loneliness is increasing. Pinker said 30 years ago, Americans had more intimate networks with more dependable connections. They met more people during the day and through work, school and shopping. In short, Pinker says, Facebook friendships may not be meaningful relationships that bring us joy, support and satisfaction. This is particularly concerning, because of the isolation due to the novel coronavirus and having to depend on technology to stay connected.

Loneliness: A Silent Killer

The results of breakthroughs in genetics and immunology have been eye-opening. In fact, people’s physical bodies do not do well when living in isolation. Research has shown that loneliness can lead to depression, which, if left untreated, can lead to serious health issues. The level of the stress hormone cortisol increases when a person is lonely, and that can compromise the immune system and lead to inflammation. According to the Cleveland Clinic, this can increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and dementia.

Loneliness can even shorten people’s lives. An analysis of about 70 studies conducted between 1980 and 2014 found a 26 percent increased likelihood of death for reported loneliness, a 29 percent increase for social isolation and a 32 percent increase for living alone.

Caring for Our Neighbors

United Church Homes is focusing on creating solutions to this problem. This fall, its Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging intends to hold its annual symposium, which will focus on open lines of communication between healthcare professionals, social workers and the older adults and families they serve. We hope attendees will gain renewed hope from the event.

Maybe you’ve been lonely for a long time, or the mandatory social and physical distancing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a spike in your loneliness. Perhaps you suspect that your isolation could be contributing to health concerns. You may be a lonely person’s loved one and want to help, or you may notice a neighbor or colleague has been disengaging. Whatever your situation, you should know this simple truth: The people around us can make a big difference. Ask your acquaintances and loved ones directly: “Are you lonely?” Invite them to share their experiences and struggles. If everyone reaches out to the people in our lives with kindness and understanding, we can create a world without loneliness.

*This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of United Church News’ Spirit magazine and is reprinted with permission.