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The loneliness trap: As bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Does it shorten your life? | Life & Style

The loneliness trap: As bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Does it shorten your life? | Life & Style
The loneliness trap: As bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Does it shorten your life? | Life & Style


I Don't spend too much time worrying about a lonely old age. As I approach my 61st birthday and enter eight years of a very happy marriage, I have a wife, two teenage stepchildren, an older daughter from an ex-husband, a grandson, and four siblings. Most of them at least put up with me; some tell me they love me. But maybe I take too many things for granted. People die, people are separated, people fall out. And anyone who knows me will tell you I can be very frustrating.

It's possible that 15 or 20 years from now, no one in my family will want anything to do with me.

As for my close friends, some of whom I've known for over 40 years, a) I'm clearly getting older and b) I've been terrible at keeping in touch with them. Lockdown and sobriety have meant I've largely forgotten how to socialize. It's been almost four years since I quit drinking, and while I don't fear a relapse, I find it a little harder to enjoy a pub or wine bar when I'm sober, and I talk a little less about myself. When I'm feeling generous, I tell myself he's also less likely to end the night on a tangent.

Maybe I'll just be left with one or two dogs. That might not be so bad. I'm a late convert to tail-wagging, licking dogs, and for the last six years I've been lucky enough to care for two rescued dogs from Romania. Sienna, a thick-headed Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and Stevie, a short-tailed Quarter Alsatian Bull Terrier, are always happy to see me and are always fun company. I talk to them more than I can possibly imagine is healthy. Is it wrong to call dogs “cute”?

Out of curiosity (I talk to dogs!), I decided to find out where I rank on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, one of the most popular scales introduced in 1978 and which remains one of the most popular after several revisions. How often do you feel lonely? Online TestNever, rarely, sometimes, often? How often do you feel that your interests and thoughts are not shared by the people around you? Never, rarely, sometimes, often? I asked these questions 20 times and my score is 37 out of 80, which represents a “moderate” level of loneliness, as opposed to “low,” “somewhat high,” or “high.” This is a bit worse than I expected. Stevie, Sienna, you're not doing your part.

Perhaps we need to clarify what we mean by loneliness, as opposed to isolation, social isolation, or loneliness. Henry RollinsFormer Black Flag frontman turned author John F. Kelly says loneliness is “something that adds beauty to life, that gives sunsets their special glow, that makes the night air smell good.” I'd classify it as poetic nonsense. The Campaign to End Loneliness (CEL) offers a more useful definition: “The subjective, unwelcome feeling of being without or missing companionship. It occurs when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships we have and what we want.”

“When I was in my 40s, I would go days without seeing another person,” says Phil d'Aust in his old home in the Vosges mountains in northeastern France. Photo: Phil Daoust

This mismatch can ruin lives, especially as we get older, when the Grim Reaper reaps our loved ones, and retirement or illness takes away all the weak links that come with the daily commute or weekly shopping. Chronically lonelyAccording to CEL, this means they feel this way “frequently or all the time.” In 2022, Michael, 58, who lost his mother a few years ago, told the Mental Health Foundation that his life was “It's like being on a deserted island.”“When you have someone who really understands you, understands you more than most people, then when you lose that person it leaves a big hole,” he said.

“People who always or frequently feel lonely are at higher risk for developing certain mental health problems, including anxiety and depression,” the foundation notes. “This type of loneliness has also been linked to increased suicidal thoughts.”

It's not surprising that one dire symptom triggers another. But loneliness is just as bad for the mind and body. America's top doctor, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, was worried enough last year to issue an urgent warning about an “epidemic” of loneliness and social isolation. (They're not exactly the same thing, but there's a lot of overlap: Social isolation describes an objective lack of social connections, while loneliness is a matter of perception. You can be lonely without being socially isolated, or vice versa, if you're lucky.)

Murthy didn't mince words: “Loneliness and social isolation Increased risk of early death by 26% and 29%, respectively“More broadly, a lack of social connections increases the risk of premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Moreover, poor or insufficient social connections increase the risk of disease, including a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. Furthermore” – you're spoiling us, Dr. Murthy – “it increases the risk of anxiety, depression and dementia. Furthermore, a lack of social connections may increase susceptibility to viruses and respiratory diseases.”

Loneliness can strike at any age: Joe Harrison, Marmalade Trustcurrent Loneliness Awareness Weekdescribes it as “a natural emotion that ebbs and flows throughout our lives.” According to researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in the US, A kind of U-shaped curveIt peaks in young adulthood, hits a trough in middle age, rises again after age 60, and is especially steep around age 80.

Looking back, I've felt the loneliest in my teens and twenties: at school, my first year away from home at university, while working as an English assistant in France, and in a few unhappy relationships. By the time I was in my forties, I was living mostly alone in a mountaintop cabin, but I felt much more connected to the world. I can go days without seeing another human being.

“She's always happy to see me and is always fun company.” Photo: Anselme Ebruet/The Guardian

When loneliness strikes in your 70s, 80s and 90s it can be particularly brutal. There is little time to overcome it. It seems fatal. What are we to make of Ruth Rowe's observation that “three million older people say that television or radio is their main source of social interaction”? Rowe is head of loneliness services at Age UK, and many of the risk factors she lists seem harder to solve than settling into a new school or a different job.

“Older people are at much higher risk of loneliness, whether it's bereavement, mental or physical health conditions or caring for a loved one,” Rowe says. “And life changes like losing things that many of us take for granted – like our sight, hearing or the ability to walk to the shops – can mean hours spent alone with no one to talk to, leaving you feeling isolated and invisible.” That's why Age UK has a 24-hour Loneliness Care Service Head. Silverline Helpline We offer telephone and face-to-face friendship services for people 55 and older.

I wonder how bad things have to get before people admit they need help. Mark Rowland, chief executive of the Mental Health Centre health Foundation founder John F. Kennedy says many of us have a hard time admitting we're lonely, even to ourselves. “There's still a very big stigma,” he says. “Though as a society we're more fragmented and there are factors beyond our individual control, we internalize the causes of loneliness as flaws in our character — that we're uninteresting, unworthy. That can develop into a spiral of lack of self-confidence and social withdrawal.” In other words, you feel lonely, you avoid others, and you feel even lonelier…

To quote Michael again, loneliness is “corrosive,” it “erode[s]your self-image,” and it “makes you question the value of your life.”

As I learned My past experience with depressionWhen you've spent months wondering if everything around you is falling apart, but not in your own mind, putting into words how you're feeling might be the first step to doing something about it. “One of the messages we want to get across is that loneliness is not insurmountable at any stage of life,” says Rowland. But if, for example, Rusty “Problems arise in our mental and emotional lives that we don't even have a name for. Bringing them into the light and sharing them with ourselves and others is the first step in breaking this cycle.”

Planning for Loneliness

Eight suggestions Mental Health Foundation:

Try to keep yourself busy
This might include gardening, going to the gym, organising your kitchen cupboards, hobbies like jigsaws, puzzles or knitting. Small activities can give you energy and positive feelings. It is important that these activities are enjoyable or give you a sense of fulfillment. Be careful not to try too hard or watch TV shows as a distraction. This will only delay or suppress your emotions and may actually worsen your mental state.

Hobbies should be fun and fulfilling… Photo: MoMo Productions/Getty Images

Stimulate the mind
This can include taking courses or listening to podcasts on anything from comedy to fitness — even just hearing the voices of people you love can help you feel less alone.

Get moving
Exercise can help you feel less lonely. Even a walk in the park when you're feeling a bit tired can be enough. Or you can put on some music and dance in your living room (just be mindful of your neighbors).

Make sure you interact with the people you meet
It can be hard to talk to others when you're feeling lonely. But it helps to make an effort to connect with the people you come across in your daily life. Even just making eye contact with someone as you walk by and saying “hello” can make you feel better. Exchanging a polite greeting can also lift someone else's spirits.

Find someone who “gets” you
There are huge benefits to finding others who have been through similar experiences as you, so look for connections in local groups or on social media.

A natural stress reliever. Photo: Katherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

Spending time with pets
Not only do animals give us unconditional love and support, they also bring structure to our days and give us an opportunity to get outside and socialize with other people. display It helps reduce stress levels.

Be proactive on social media
Social media can either help or harm your mental health. Find digital communities that share your interests and passions. Most importantly, be mindful of how you feel when using social media and focus on topics and activities that work best for you.

Talk therapy can help
Talk therapy can be difficult to access, but if you can find a counselor or therapist, they can provide a safe place where you can process your feelings and thoughts without being judged. Check out your local resources. NHS website.




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