Joe, a participant in the Loneliness Project's experiment, talks to Barry about life in isolation after spending a week alone. Screenshot from the Loneliness Project

What would society be like if health insurers and public bodies invested as much in encouraging social encounters as exercise and good diet?

In her inaugural speech as the head of the Royal College of General Practitioners recently, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard chose to focus her remarks on loneliness.

“GPs see patients, many of whom are widowed, who have multiple health problems,” she said. “But often their main problem isn’t medical. They’re lonely. These patients need someone to listen to them, and to find purpose in life.”

Stokes-Lampard is not the first leading medical professional to express concern about the impact that isolation is having on physical health. Last month the former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy spoke out about the link between loneliness and life-span.

“During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness,” he wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

Loneliness is a growing crisis, akin to an epidemic. It is one of the greatest challenges we face as a society. But addressing it would present one of the greatest opportunities to build a kinder and less divisive society.

In the UK alone, there are currently 1.2 million chronically lonely older people. More than half of people over the age of 75 live on their own, and some 500,000 older people in the UK go up to a week without seeing or speaking to anyone. Two fifths of older people say that television is their main company.

By 2040, the number of  people 75 and older in the UK will double to around 10 million, and the problem will get bigger.

Loneliness is associated with as much of a reduction in lifespan as obesity and smoking. It is as bad for you as 15 cigarettes a day. Lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease, and depression. Blood pressure and anxiety are higher for people without supportive relationships in their lives. But those with supportive relationships have higher levels of oxytocin, the “love” hormone, that is important to health and wellbeing.

The presence of a supportive person can reduce cardiovascular and neuroendocrine responses to stress. Over thousands of years when humans were reliant on trust and relationships with others to secure food and safety, our physiology evolved to be connected to others: to be lonely goes against human nature.

So what do we do about it?

First, we need to keep pushing the message that loneliness is unbelievably damaging to health. Second, we need to recognize the economic case for tackling loneliness. The Campaign to End Loneliness’s research with the London School of Economics found that for every £1 invested in an effective intervention on loneliness, up to £3 can be saved in health costs.  

With a fast-aging population, the effect of loneliness on public health will only deepen. What would society be like if health insurers and public bodies invested as much in encouraging social encounters as exercise and good diet?

What if policy-makers in every city were weaving the prevention of loneliness into their strategies, ensuring that community spaces are protected, so that people can gather to socialize? There is a square near a friend’s flat in London that is a glorious example of this. Children play, teenagers skateboard, and older men and women gather for chess and gossip. There are often bands playing, and at weekends, food stalls pop up, serving chicken and burgers. It is a focal point of the community—a beautiful little hub of activity.

It  is under threat; developers are trying to buy the land, and I do not doubt that in time they will succeed. So what will replace it? Where will the older people go? Community spaces—our libraries, children’s play centers, pubs—are being slowly eroded. We need to recognize what the long-term implications of this erosion are for loneliness.

Thirdly, we must confront the uncomfortable truth that we are an ageist society. We do not value the contribution of older people enough, and most people probably do not consider them potential friends.

This ageism, combined with defeatist attitudes toward later life (9 in 10 people in the UK believe that loneliness in older age is more likely now than ever), means we fail to see older people as fully-formed individuals.

The need for friendship and support and meaningful relationships does not fizzle out with age. Whether we are 24 or 84, we all need connections that matter. Older people are not two-dimensional (grumpy or cheerful); they are as multi-dimensional as the rest of us. We want to laugh, gossip, cheer, moan, love, and play with each other. I want to know that, when I am older, loneliness is not considered a natural state of affairs. Loneliness should never be normalized or accepted as inevitable. It isn’t.

Connections with others gives us hope and confidence in frightening times—and your 80 year-old neighbor who lives alone needs that just as much as you do. In the Campaign to End Loneliness’s latest film, an older man named Barry calls for us to engage in the simplest behavior changes: to be aware of each other, and to “make a little effort.”

I believe that loneliness is everyone’s business. So, I urge you to think about what you can do yourself to tackle loneliness. It could be volunteering at a local older person’s project, or simply getting to know your neighbors who might feel isolated. We can end loneliness – but only if we all play our part.

This article is part of a series highlighting the themes of CityLab Paris, a convening of urban leaders.

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