Is loneliness the next big health threat?

Loneliness forms part of the complex human condition and older people are especially prone to feeling lonely. No one escapes it, even if it is experienced rarely. Now research says that loneliness not only makes a person feel bad, but it can really harm us.

We all try to look after our health and most of us respond to new ideas about how to do that.

Decades ago, I smoked my last cigarette. On 24th October 1974 to be exact. It took a while to settle the cravings, because cigarettes had been like a best friend for twenty years. My sense of taste came back. My clothes smelled nice and so did the house’ and there were no ashtrays to empty and clean.

A few years later a cheeky year-nine boy challenged me.

What exercise do you do, and how much, Miss? he asked in a health education class 

Caught out, perhaps I did tell a little lie. But the next morning I made up for it and walked before breakfast. That was a new beginning. After a few weeks of forced exercise, the bug hit me and has not yet let go. Thank goodness, because walking and swimming give me so much pleasure, even with the wonky knees. They benefit!

I try to watch what I eat, and rarely drink alcohol. Once able to live comfortably on five hours sleep, I’ve become very strict about bed and waking times, and sleep well.

Sometimes I meditate and try to moderate my stress levels. I write morning pages for the same purpose.

All that virtue should be its own reward.  Don’t believe it!

The next big threats

Sitting too long in one place became the next big threat. We need to be active, to move regularly. Stand up during the ad breaks on television, walk around the house .I’d started to come to terms with that when along came another one.

Apparently, I should have known all along that loneliness loomed as a greater threat than almost anything, even though I’m rarely lonely.  When I’m alone, it’s mostly a time to nurture myself, day dream and make stuff, or write.

But we humans need to be in contact with others. Especially when life is tough, we need interact, to belong, to be supported and comforted.

Loneliness is bad for our health

  • Loneliness increases the amount of stress hormones in our bodies, thus also increasing the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, among other things.
  • It disrupts our sleep, leading to tiredness and lack of motivation.
  • Aches, pains and illnesses become worse.
  • Our immune systems become compromised.
  • We may start risky behaviours, such as eating poorly, not exercising, smoking and drinking to excess or using drugs.
  • Mental health suffers, and we become depressed and anxious and may even suffer paranoia.
  • In older people, cognitive decline can occur.

Prevent loneliness

Being lonely is not fun. We need to work to combat it. We do this by staying socially involved with other people. Even when we least feel like it, we need to reach out if we want to stay healthy.

Generally, adults should aim to have a minimum of four or five people they can talk to, even when they are at their lowest point. The time to grow this support network is when they are not lonely, or when they feel a bit less lonely than usual.

Friends look out for each other, and provide support and comfort. Sometimes we need more than at other times. We understand this ebb and flow and accept it as part of our friendship role.

Please share what you are doing about your personal ‘next big health threat’  in a comment.

5 replies on “Is loneliness the next big health threat?”

  1. Illness can increase loneliness making it hard to go out and meet people. Having a good social network such as Facebook is the next best thing. It increases my knowledge of the world around me as many friends are from overseas. The downside is I spend to much time there instead of writing my new book.

    1. I think you do a remarkable job of staying in contact in spite of illness, Miriam. And I imagine many of your Facebook friends are real-time friends as well?

    2. Hi, Miriam, I only saw your comment a moment ago. Not sure where it was hidden. Thank you for this very insightful comment. I find it interesting that you enjoy Facebook and social networking as the next best thing to social interaction in real time. Pity about your book, though! I think we all fall into that trap.

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