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British government targets a modern public health scourge: Loneliness

British government targets a modern public health scourge: Loneliness
The United Kingdom has a new plan to fight loneliness. (Pavel Kriuchkov / iStockphoto)

The country that put the starch in “stiff upper lip” has made companionship, conversation and human contact a national priority.

On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced the creation of a new ministerial portfolio in her Cabinet: combating loneliness.

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With more than 9 million British adults reportedly experiencing chronic loneliness — and a stack of studies documenting the corrosive health effects of such social isolation — May said it was time that a high-level government official coordinate a “first-ever strategy” to address the scourge.

May named the minister for sport and civil society, Tracey Crouch, to the role, and called on the Office for National Statistics to devise ways to better measure loneliness.

The newly created “ministerial lead on loneliness” was a tribute to Jo Cox, a Labor Party lawmaker who was killed in June 2016 by a white supremacist. Addressing loneliness was a cause championed by Cox, who represented a district in West Yorkshire.

“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” May said in launching the government effort. “I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers and by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”

The government campaign makes the United Kingdom a pioneer in tackling a public health challenge that has emerged in an age of transient families, growing social diversity and crumbling political consensus. The Campaign to End Loneliness, a British philanthropy, says more than half of Britons older than 75 live alone. And about half a million older Britons can go a week without seeing or speaking to anyone.

Laura Alcock-Ferguson, executive director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, has called the condition an “epidemic” in Britain.

And the U.K. is not alone. In 2016, then-U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned that Americans are “facing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation.” A long-running survey called the Health and Retirement Study suggests that about 28% of older Americans feel chronically lonely.

The result of all this loneliness goes beyond widespread emotional distress. Research has shown that people who routinely feel lonely or cut off from friends and family are more likely to suffer high blood pressure, develop heart disease and be diagnosed with dementia. UCLA researchers have found that lonely people suffer higher levels of chronic inflammation, making them more vulnerable to a wide range of health conditions.

Compared with people who have strong social connections, those who acknowledge chronic feelings of loneliness are more likely to see their function decline as they age, and are 50% more likely to die prematurely.

As a risk factor for early mortality, loneliness’s impact is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than that of obesity, according to a review by experts from Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Unsurprisingly, social isolation greatly increases the risk for depression and the poor self-care that typically accompanies it — a vicious cycle that makes loneliness a root cause of all manner of illness. Psychologists have identified another vicious cycle: Lonely people experience brain changes that make it more difficult to form new social connections. For instance, they’re more likely to view others’ faces as threatening, making it harder for them to bond with others.

University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, who has studied loneliness and its effects for decades, said the British initiative “constitutes an important recognition for the significance of loneliness in people’s life.”

Developing effective treatments to reduce loneliness “will not be achieved easily,” he warned. “Loneliness has been allowed to go unchecked for a significant period of time.”

In recent years, programs have sprouted across the U.K. linking older Britons with schools, nurseries and young families. Efforts like these, and to address loneliness as a national public health issue, represent a reversal of the trend and provide “hope for the improvement of the quality of life for millions of people,” Cacioppo said.

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