Loneliness is a killer. An influential meta-analysis, which collated and analysed the results of nearly 150 studies, underlines the impact on health of loneliness, or more specifically, lack of social integration and social support.

It found loneliness increases the risk of death more than such things as poor diet, obesity, alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise, and that it is as harmful as heavy smoking.

most people generally don’t know loneliness kills. Indeed, some of our own research found when people in the United Kingdom and United States were asked to rank how important they thought various factors were for health, social integration and social support were at the bottom of their lists.

Yet, in a forthcoming paper, we found the quality of social connections is around four times more important as a predictor of retirees’ physical and mental health than the state of their finances.

Who’s feeling lonely in the era of  Covid isolation?

Young people

Among people aged 18-24, only a third (32%) “rarely” or “never” feel lonely. More than a quarter (30%) said they felt lonely “frequently” or “always”.

This compares sharply with the situation for older people, over two-thirds of whom (71%) “rarely” or “never” feel lonely. The fact that our image of a lonely person is typically someone of advanced years suggests we need to update our data (and our thinking).

Inner-city dwellers

The second group for whom loneliness emerges as a particular problem are people living in inner cities.

Compared to people who live in rural areas, those in inner metropolitan areas are less likely to say that they “never” feel lonely (15% vs 20%), but much more likely to say that they “occasionally”, “frequently”, or “always” do (50% vs 42%).

Again, this runs counter to much of the discourse around loneliness, which often focuses on the plight of those who are physical remote from others.

People on low incomes

Perhaps the most stark finding concerns the fourth predictor of loneliness: poverty. While 21% of people who earn less than A$600 a week feel lonely “frequently” or “always”, the comparable figure for people who earn more than A$3,000 a week is less than half that (10%).

This speaks to the more general (but often neglected) fact that around the world poverty is one of the biggest predictors of poor health, especially depression and other mental illnesses.

It also speaks to our observation that if you are fortunate enough to have a lot of money when you retire, then one of the key things this allows you to do is to maintain and build social connections.

What can we do about loneliness?

So, there is a lot here for us to talk about when it comes to loneliness. This discussion also needs to ask what we are going to do to address a social cancer every bit as alarming as cancer itself.

For us, a large part of the answer lies in efforts to rebuild group-based social connections that are eroded by the tyrannies of modern life.

This is a world where all types of community — families, neighbourhoods, churches, political parties, trade unions and even stable work groups — are constantly under threat. So let’s get talking.

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