Research both past and current has indicated that loneliness, an unpleasant, yet seemingly innocuous experience, is a major health risk. For instance, some studies have found that being lonely increases the risk of premature death by as many as 50%, and is at least as hazardous to health as smoking and being obese.
Problem is – loneliness seems to be a widespread phenomenon around the Western hemisphere, affecting young people as much as it does older people.
In a new study, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, researchers used data from the survey known as the Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study (ERLTS), which assessed same-sex twins, born in 1994-1995, at various stages of their life to get a snapshot of the lives of young self-confessed loners in the UK.
Having examined a data set of the ERLTS corresponding to the surveys taken when the participants reached 18 years of age, the research team had found that up to 7% of participants said they often had feelings of loneliness, with 23-31% saying they experienced feeling left out, alone, isolated or lacking in companionship at least some of the time.
The researchers then pooled the responses together and, controlling for gender and socioeconomic status, developed a scale whereby every two-point increase on an eight-point loneliness scale led to more than double the risk of developing depression, anxiety or attempting suicide, and increased the odds of being unemployed by 38%.
Furthermore, loneliness was also found to be linked to smoking, low levels of physical activity, compulsive use of technology, having low qualifications and more reticence to speak about loneliness with other people.
While the researchers themselves have noted that contact between individuals might not be enough to tackle loneliness as every participant in the study had at least one sibling, and therefore suggested other approaches, such as addressing bullying, isolation and mental health issues in children, Professor Anne Rogers of the University of Southampton proposed a slightly different angle.
“Whilst calls for early intervention might be one way of addressing [loneliness], we need to look at developing and evaluating interventions that might connect people to social opportunities and networks of support in everyday settings, i.e., doing something which makes a difference to loneliness.”
So, while loneliness is not necessarily a mental health issue in itself, the two appear to be closely related and should therefore be addressed in conjunction.