Tackle loneliness for better health

Lesley Dobson / 20 April 2016

Why loneliness is bad for your heart health and what you can do about it.

Feeling lonely, and isolated isn’t just hard on your emotional wellbeing, according to recent research it can also increase your risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke.

Related: Fight loneliness and improve your health

A study carried out by researchers at the University of York and the University of Liverpool, looked at the results of a range of previous studies. Three of these studies were on loneliness and 18 studies were on social isolation. Altogether these included health information about more than 18,000 people.

The researchers found that there were 4,628 recorded incidents of CHD, and more than 3,000 strokes recorded in these studies. Put another way, being lonely and having few social relationships were associated with a 29 percent increase in risk of developing CHD and a 32 percent risk of having a stroke.

Related: 10 ways to avoid a stroke

“We take risk factors like obesity and physical inactivity for granted, whereas we don’t yet with social isolation and loneliness. The data supports us taking it seriously,” said Nicole Valtorta, National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Doctoral Research Fellow from the University of York’s Department of Health Sciences.

“If we put these findings into context what we found is comparable in size to the effects of other psychosocial risk factors such as anxiety and job strain.”

Related: Surprising ways to deal with anxiety

Loneliness and living a solitary life can make it more and more difficult to make contact with old friends and family members as time goes by. Being with a group of people, or even having a conversation with someone else may seem too hard a challenge to try. However, as this study indicates, having other people in your life is good for you physically as well as mentally.

Unfortunately there are many lonely people out there. They are most probably thinking similar thoughts, how much they would like friendship and company. It may seem like an impossible goal when you’re lonely, but there are things you can do, to gently bridge that loneliness gap.

Related: How to make new friends

Take things at your own pace. If you can get out and about, start by saying  ‘Hello’ to your neighbours, or people you meet on the bus, or in a local café. Make a short, friendly comment about their garden, grandchild, dog, the weather, or anything and remember to smile. Getting back into being sociable with other people can take time, and courage, so take it gently.

Find out if there are any local clubs where you might meet people with similar interests to yours – look on local websites, and in your local paper.

You don’t have to do this all on your own. There are organisations that help people to reconnect with the world beyond their own doorstep. If meeting other people in person seems like a huge step, you can connect with other people online, or over the phone. 

Related: 15 ways to beat loneliness

The Silver Line charity for instance, provides a helpline for older people. They help with information and practical advice on a wide range of problems, and are also there to listen, and to offer advice and company. You can reach them on 0800 470 80 90 (calls are free) 24 hours a day, or go to www.thesilverline.org.uk

Contact the Elderly is a national charity dedicated to helping older people dealing with loneliness and social isolation. The charity organizes monthly tea parties on Sunday afternoons for small groups of people aged 75 and over, who live on their own. A volunteer driver will collect you, take you to a volunteer host’s home for afternoon tea and a friendly chat. This service is free.

You can join online at www.contact-the-elderly.org.uk/guest, or call 0800 716 543, or go to www.contact-the-elderly.org.uk/contact to find out the details of your local contact.

The Campaign to End Loneliness www.campaigntoendloneliness.org is a charity that aims to make sure that the problem of loneliness is taken seriously as a public health priority at national and local levels. Their website has useful information on other organizations that can provide befriending services, advice and support. These include Independent Age 0800 319 6789, www.independentage.org, and Friends of the Elderly www.fote.org.uk.                  

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.