Social loneliness: the unseen killer

Posted on 09 June 2019

Social loneliness: the unseen killer

It doesn’t take a genius to know that social loneliness is bad for you. We all feel negative effects mentally and emotionally when alone but also isolated people have nobody to lean on for practical support. Socioeconomic factors contribute 50% to health outcomes and so it should come as no surprise to you then that social loneliness has a huge impact on health. Consider the following:

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Source: Healthwatch Devon

Social loneliness puts people at higher risk of a multitude of conditions and the scary stats show that lonely people are over 25% more likely to die. At a systemic level these are significant costs to an already overburdened healthcare system from an issue which is very preventable. It is a welcome intervention then, for the NHS to introduce the prescription of social activities by 2023.

Some of these facts seem almost too simple, though. When I’m lonely I get bored with a lack of mental stimulus and my mood goes down. I am more likely to eat junk food to fill the void. And rather than train my brain on Sudoku I’m more likely to laze in front of the TV on Netflix. It stands to reason then that over a sustained period of time that such behaviours would make me overweight, depressed and cognitively slow. But a friend might encourage me to get out and play football and follow-up with a home-cooked meal at their place. And even if I didn’t have such friends I can join a local football club and make some friends. The options are always there, especially with our old friend Google.

I don’t mean to downplay how difficult social loneliness can be to deal with let alone overcome. Some people are truly isolated and absolutely will need the NHS to locate and actively service them. However the vast majority of us can easily address this in our day-to-day lives before such consequences for our health could even arise. Just take an activity you do daily and make it social. Go on, I challenge you, write one down write now; whether that be having your morning coffee with a colleague, a daily walk with your partner or a yoga class with your uni mates.

Lifestyle approaches to health often focus on the individual; however without positive support structures around them the other interventions are likely to come undone sooner or later. To get through Whole30, for example, I had people around me who joined me and we provided mutual support. That’s why at Hippocrates’ Lounge we look at relationships as well ashow you eat, move, think and sleep. With people around you, you’re more likely to do everything a little better. And if you want some guidance in how to do that, we can always help.

Addendum: some ideas for socialising during lockdown

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Dr Dilraj Kalsi uses Lifestyle Medicine and Digital Health to empower patients to reverse disease via his online clinic Hippocrates Lounge. He is a Lecturer in Digital Health at the University of Warwick and publishes regularly on patient empowerment with colleagues from Oxford University. For all his latest health tips straight to your inbox, sign up here!

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