By Marcus Rand
Our society is evolving fast into one that can appear sociable, but without much face-to-face conversation. We are surrounded by people, but interact with no-one. We can easily become visibly invisible.
Loneliness has become a major issue for us all, whatever our age. Indeed, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has just released research showing that loneliness is not only of concern to our older population – it is a major issue for our children and young adults too.
Loneliness has only recently been recast as a serious threat to our health, and something that cannot be cured with a simple dose of tea and sympathy. Experts across different fields have united behind a common understanding that the ache of loneliness, currently experienced by over a million older people up and down the UK, is having a major impact on our nation’s health and well-being.
We’re all animals, and social ones at that. Our evolution has been driven by social interaction. So the removal or loss of regular meaningful human contact can have a series of health impacts, as research has shown. In terms of life expectancy, it is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s also linked to depression, dementia and higher blood pressure. And there is mounting evidence that those experiencing chronic loneliness are more likely to visit their local doctor or their emergency A&E services.
We are now waking up to the fact that this growing tide of loneliness, now measured at over a million older people, is placing significant strains on our health and care services. And this strain comes at a cost. Initial research by the influential Social Finance team and leading health academics from the LSE has identified the cost at some £6,000 per person due to the range of health impacts that loneliness is linked to. Some mental maths tells us the overall cost impact of loneliness lies in the billions – it doesn’t come cheap.
Investing in prevention
The Commissioner for Older People in Wales recently said – “If you could catch loneliness we would have invented a cure by now.” Wise words, but you can’t catch it. And this is why the policy response is way too slow to scale up the interventions necessary to deal with the problem.
We must begin to look at loneliness afresh – treat it like any other major public health issue like diabetes or cancer, and recognise that prevention must play a key part alongside cure. The case for comparison with other major health risks is strong. A number of schemes now have shown that investment to reduce the loneliness of an individual is a sensible economic move as it delivers long-term savings to our health and care services in the same way that investing today to help people stop smoking saves money and lives tomorrow.
As the health, social and economic case for a major intervention builds we must also recognise that change doesn’t happen on its own. We need to all make sure that loneliness moves from an issue tackled largely by the voluntary sector to one that mobilises us all – it becomes everyone’s business.
Somewhere underneath it all, if we dig hard enough, we are all connected. We are all mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandchildren, friends, neighbours. We are all human. It’s time for us all to play our part. To create a reaction against loneliness so powerful it will help us to reconnect the missing million; to enable the invisible to become visible again. Marcus Rand is director of the Campaign to End Loneliness