27 July 2016 14:40:32

Loneliness: why is it a killer?

In a country of nearly 70 million people, one in three of over-65s are sometimes or always lonely, and the figure is even higher for over-80s; half of them feel lonely regularly. Loneliness can affect your health in lots of ways.

We've all heard of people dying of a broken heart, but for most of them the big culprit is probably loneliness. Loneliness really can be a killer. Whether you're feeling lonely or want to help, making contact is the first step.

In a country of nearly 70 million people, one in three of over-65s are sometimes or always lonely, and the figure is even higher for over-80s; half of them feel lonely regularly. Loneliness can affect your health in lots of ways. You may not be able to get out to buy healthy foods - or you may not have the motivation to cook for one. And not getting enough mental stimulation increases the chance of depression and dementia.

Researchers into loneliness split it into four key elements: feeling lack of companionship, feeling left out, feeling isolated from others and feeling that you're not in tune with people. Feeling isolated doesn't just mean that you don't see other people regularly. Some people in, say, care homes can feel very isolated if they don't feel they have close relationships with the people around them. This can be a particular problem if they have eyesight or particularly hearing problems.

Being a carer can be a very lonely place. You're entitled to a yearly check on your needs (your local council can advise) or your GP can advise). Don't be shy to ask for help - you deserve it. And don't feel disloyal to your loved one; you'll be better able to care for them if you're in a good place yourself.

Of course, living alone certainly doesn't help loneliness. A study last winter of over 75s admitted to hospital revealed that eight out of nine were admitted from their own homes, half lived alone and nearly half said they felt socially isolated. Even more scarily, one in three of the people who lived alone had either seen just one other person, or seen nobody socially in the previous month.

Being shut into a world of your own is a very lonely place to be - and the tragedy is that often it's not necessary. Hearing loss is a classic example of this. It's estimated that about six million people in the UK could benefit from a hearing aid, but only a third this number use them. People with hearing loss are almost four times more likely to suffer from psychological problems like depression than people of the same age with normal hearing.

Yet these days, hearing aids have never been easier to access on the NHS. They're small, discreet and a world away from the bulky whistling contraptions of a few years ago. Many hospital clinics have on-the-day fitting services, and several high-street stores like Specsavers and Boots also offer NHS hearing tests and hearing aids at some stores. They offer the same quality of service and devices as any hospital clinic if you're referred by your GP.

How you can help yourself - and others

There are lots of things that you can do to help others or to help yourself. Many local authorities have befriending schemes, bringing together the generations. Flexible transport is often the key to success. Maybe you have a few hours free a week to take someone out or drop them to a social event? It could be a life-saver for them.

You could also pop in to an elderly neighbour when before you go to the shops - it gives an excuse to help (and chat) if you're 'going out anyway'. Age UK has highlighted libraries and museums as great places older people can play an important role too.

One-to-one befriending schemes can make a world of difference, but older people may feel too proud to engage easily. Age UK reports that one in five such schemes have problems attracting users - although far more, two in three, find recruiting volunteers a challenge. Yet they don't need to take up all your time - telephone befriending schemes have been shown to be really effective. Contact your local council for details.

Contact with children and young people makes a huge difference to older people, even if the youngsters aren't related to them. Throughout my kids' childhood, I would take them out on Christmas day to see elderly patients who wouldn't get any other visitors. My patients loved it, but so did the kids, who got lots of attention. Looking out for others brings its own rewards!

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.