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Viewpoint: Laura Ferguson on loneliness

Laura Ferguson argues that loneliness takes its toll on the body as well as the mind

It will come as no surprise to physio staff that our minds can have a remarkable effect on our physical health. We have always known that the attitude and outlook of a patient can determine how well and how fully they recover. However, a growing body of evidence shows that our mental wellbeing can be an even greater determinant of long-term health than some may have thought.    

Admitting to feelings of loneliness can carry a bizarre stigma. People are very reluctant to say they feel lonely but many healthcare professionals tell us that a large proportion of the people they see are clearly profoundly lonely. One older person in 10 says they feel lonely all or most of the time. All too often these patients are seen as time or ‘heartsinks’, but we need to understand that loneliness could well be at the root of their health complaints.

Research conducted by Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad found that feelings of isolation and loneliness can have the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, twice the effect of obesity; see here for more information.

When we give it some thought, the negative consequences of prolonged loneliness on our mental health seem obvious. Loneliness can lead to depression, cognitive decline and increases the chance of developing clinical dementia by two thirds. However, loneliness has also been strongly linked to physical ill-health. Loneliness increases the risk of high blood pressure and lonely people are also at greater risk of the onset of a disability.

The mechanism by which loneliness affects our health is currently unclear. But recent public health research presents some possibilities. People who describe themselves as lonely are more likely to smoke. They are also more likely to drink to excess, take less exercise, and eat less healthily. When we feel unimportant and undervalued we take less care of ourselves.

What much of this boils down to is that we need to consider more than just the physical aspects when treating people recovering from a disability or ill-health.

The Campaign to End Loneliness is network of local, regional and national organisations and individuals working to combat loneliness and isolation. The CSP is a supporter. For more information, visit their website here. 

  • Laura Ferguson is director, the Campaign to End Loneliness

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