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Loneliness is a global health issue that must be addressed

A recent U.S. study indicates that one in 12 people experiences loneliness to the extent where it may cause serious health problems. Still yet, the true extent of loneliness on a global scale remains unclear.

In an effort to help decision makers understand the severity of the loneliness epidemic, a team of researchers led by the University of Sydney analyzed evidence from more than 100 countries and territories. The results have confirmed that the issue is widespread throughout many countries.

“Humans thrive on meaningful social connections. Feelings of loneliness set in when a discrepancy exists between one’s desired and one’s actual level of social relationships,” wrote the study authors. “Loneliness is a negative, subjective experience closely linked to the quality of social connections. 

“Loneliness is similar to, but distinct from, social isolation, which is defined as a lack of social contacts, and being alone, characterized as being physically removed from social connections. Transient loneliness is a common experience, but chronic or severe loneliness pose threats to health and well-being.”

The experts noted that a growing collection of research has linked loneliness to various adverse health outcomes, such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, coronary heart disease, sleep disturbance, and increased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.

The researchers said that feeling lonely may also be detrimental to behavioral, mental, and social health throughout the lifespan, with potential outcomes like depression and substance abuse. 

“According to a 2015 meta-analysis, people with chronic loneliness had a 26 percent increased risk of mortality,” wrote the study authors. “This increased risk is comparable to established risk factors such as physical inactivity and grade 1 obesity.”

Based on studies from 106 countries, the prevalence of lonely feelings among adolescents ranged from 9.2 percent in Southeast Asia to 14.4 percent in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

“Based on our meta-analysis, the prevalence of loneliness is highly heterogenous across countries, even within the same region. While insufficient data prevented us from identifying geographical patterns of loneliness outside of Europe, within Europe the pattern is clear and consistent,” said the researchers.

“Across different adult age groups, northern European countries consistently reported the lowest prevalence of loneliness, whereas eastern European countries reported the highest.” 

“One study attributed country level differences to demographic characteristics, health status, social participation, and social support. Others have cited welfare systems and social security schemes as contributing factors, as welfare generosity has been positively linked to social participation and inversely associated with social exclusion.”

Most of the data examined for the study was from high income countries, particularly Europe. This makes the data insufficient to make conclusions about trends on a global scale.

Regardless, the researchers pointed out that even if the problem of loneliness had not worsened during their search period, from 2000 to 2019, the subsequent Covid-19 pandemic had a profound impact on loneliness. With this in mind, the experts said that their review provides an important pre-pandemic baseline for future surveillance.

The study authors also noted that while the data gaps in low and middle income countries raise an important issue of equity, the findings still reinforce the urgency of approaching loneliness as an important public health issue.

“Public health efforts to prevent and reduce loneliness require well coordinated ongoing surveillance across different life stages and broad geographical areas,” wrote the researchers.

“Sizeable differences in prevalence of loneliness across countries and regions call for in-depth investigation to unpack the drivers of loneliness at systemic levels and to develop interventions to deal with them.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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