THE HEALTH IMPACTS OF LONELINESS
For many of us the world is becoming a lonelier place. More than just making us feel sad, it can make us physically ill, but there are ways to reach out.
Philippa Colosimo’s water aerobics sessions at a Melbourne leisure centre are popular with the neighbourhood’s older age group. For some of the participants, the twice-weekly classes are as much about company and conversation as the exercise.
“Many of the people who take part are widowed and live alone," says Colosimo. "Some of them have children who live interstate or who lead busy lives, so they don’t see them as much as they’d like. Some of them have lost friends through illness or old age.”
As it turns out, the social aspects of the class may have just as many health benefits as the water aerobics itself.
“People who are lonely die earlier, they’re twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and loneliness has also been linked to multiple health problems from high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease to obesity,” says Dr Michelle Lim, a researcher and clinical psychologist at Swinburne Universe of Technology.
She says loneliness is a more serious issue than many people realise. While technology such as social media, websites and emails can help us stay in touch, we need deeper, personal contact to keep loneliness at bay.
“Loneliness is about not having quality, meaningful relationships," says Dr Lim. "To establish those relationships, you need time but many of us are overworked and busy. You may have one relationship that fulfils your needs, so you don’t feel lonely. Another person may have five relationships but feels lonely because these relationships don’t fulfil their need.”
Additionally as we age, relationships change and fade, which increases the risk of loneliness.
Searching for connection
This urge to socialise is part of life for most of us, and you'd think that with more than 24 million people in Australia it’d be pretty easy to do. Most of us are connected digitally too; 86% of us have an internet connection at home.
It's a far cry from the times when all humans lived in close communities. For many, our busy cities have led to a real loss of social connection.
Last year, a survey by Lifeline Australia found 8 out of 10 people believe our society is becoming lonelier. Only half of the people who took part in the survey said they had somebody to confide in when they felt lonely.
“[Lonely people] have nobody to share experiences with, and feel they are living life by themselves,” says Alan Woodward, Executive Director of Lifeline Research Foundation.
Loneliness can affect even the strongest personalities, as it strikes against our very biology, says Woodward. “Seeking support from others helps us navigate the cut and thrust of life – we’re fundamentally wired as social beings.”
The effects of loneliness
Although researchers are still teasing out how it works, multiple studies show loneliness's negative health effects, including as an early indicator of depression, says Dr Luke Martin of beyondblue. "Red flags are low mood, low energy, withdrawal from activities that you used to enjoy and withdrawal from socialising.”
And when people describe it as a form of heartache, they're not wrong. “Loneliness increases stress hormones and that can influence heart conditions and dementia,” he adds.
When researchers from a study funded by Brigham Young University in the US analysed studies involving 3 million people, they found loneliness posed the same risk to mortality as "smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic."
Other physical effects include:
- disturbed sleep
- high blood pressure
- aches and pains and headaches
- weakened immune system leading to repeated infections and colds.
Get out and about
Staying connected on social media helps, but contact with real people and getting out of the house is important. “If we start to withdraw, it can fuel a cycle,” says Woodward. “We start to lose our social interaction skills and then we take part in fewer social activities because we lose confidence.”
Give a little
There’s good evidence that helping others benefits mental health. “Whether it’s helping our family, caring for people or volunteering, we’re wired to benefit from the act of giving,” says Woodward. If you're not sure where to begin, you can find a range of options at Volunteering Australia.
Get a pet
A pet requires your care and attention. “And they give unconditional love that can be a source of happiness,” says Woodward. If your home circumstances don't allow for pets, talk to your local animal shelter or vet about helping out with rescue animals and those being boarded.
Take care of yourself
Eat a healthy diet, exercise and get a decent amount of sleep each night. Loneliness can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle that makes you feel even worse.
Take the initiative
“Don’t wait for people to contact you. Make the first move with friends and go to new places to meet new people. Start small and build connections over time,” says Dr Martin.
Go to neighbourhood gatherings and interest groups and give yourself something to do there so you’re not left with nobody to talk to, he adds. “Think through some conversation starters and be kind to yourself. Loneliness can come off the back of life’s hardships so have compassion for what you are trying to do rather than beating yourself up for not doing it as well as other people seem to.”
Talk to a professional
Talking to a GP or counsellor about what is going on in your life can teach you some coping strategies. “I think GPs should screen for loneliness, just as they screen for other health issues because it’s a precursor to many future health problems,” says Dr Lim.
Colosimo has witnessed firsthand the ways in which taking action can combat loneliness among her senior exercisers. “Friendships have formed, and at different times of the year the class gets together to celebrate special events. They organise trips to the cinema and dinners. It’s lovely to see people getting so much enjoyment and a real sense of connection out of something as simple as a fitness class.”