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10 December 2016Last updated
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Features | Health

Loneliness can kill you

An increasing number of people are experiencing dire loneliness, which could lead to serious ailments, reports Sarah Gibbons

By Sarah Gibbons
19 Feb 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Getty Images Image 1 of 3
  • An obsessive virtual lifestyle has rendered thousands incapable of having meaningful relationships in real life.

    Source:iStock Image 2 of 3
  • Nearly 1.1 million women over 50 years battle severe loneliness in England alone, and this number is rising at an alarming rate worldwide.

    Source:Getty Images Image 3 of 3

Steve* pushed his empty plate across the table and stared at the stuff that needed to be washed up behind him in the kitchen. Normally, they would sit there unwashed for hours, but today he couldn’t wait to get stuck into the job. It was his birthday, and he was spending it in his luxurious apartment all by himself.

Work had led Steve, 28, to the bright lights of Dubai a few months ago, and he has loved the place ever since. Constant sunshine, beaches and a great lifestyle that he could afford helped. All his jealous British friends wanted to be here too.

The glitzy malls dotting the cityscape, its youthful buzz and variety of activities the city has to offer make him feel like he’s on top of the world on most days. But on his birthday, he misses home and everything the day signified – time to be with family, meeting up with old friends, gifts and parties.

He had pre-ordered a cake and gotten himself a gift. He’d even ordered in a nice takeaway. But nothing could prepare him for the sense of loneliness that swept over him as he opened the door to his apartment after a long day at work, switched on the lights and was met with pin-drop silence.

No mum’s chocolate cake – his favourite – no friends surprising him with gifts, and no sense of anything that made the day different from any other that he’d had since he’d landed in Dubai.

Once he’d called his parents and heard how much they missed him, he took his time to wash his plate and cutlery meticulously, pondering on what to watch on the telly that would take his mind off his current miserable state, so that he could eventually fall asleep.

While Steve felt fortunate that he had a great set of colleagues who had helped him settle down in the new city, it was the sense of vacuum in his personal life that he did not know how to address.

And he is not alone in his suffering. A recent study suggests that loneliness blights the lives of 700,000 men and 1.1 million women over 50 only in England – figures that are rising at an alarming rate and are replicated the world over.

This is particularly so when a birthday, the festive season or any special day approaches, and many expats living in the region find themselves struggling to overcome their feelings of loneliness if they are forced to spend time apart from their loved ones, due to work commitments, or the prohibitive costs of flying home.

Even though some might opt to spend time in their new chosen home, thoughts of family and friends left behind can exacerbate feelings of loneliness, explains Dr Tanja Upatel, a clinical psychologist at the German Neuroscience Centre in Dubai.

‘Most expats living in the UAE are far away from home and their families. This can be very challenging, especially for people who are living away for the first time. And even though it’s relatively easy to meet new people here, most relationships have a rather shallow and superficial character.

‘Loneliness is a subjective feeling. It doesn’t necessarily mean only social isolation. It can also occur if one is socially very active, but the quality of social contact is poor.

‘Moreover, some expats stay only for a limited time in the country. Relationships usually need time to reach a certain quality.’

While Dr Upatel adds that globally, 5-10 per cent of the elderly feel lonely, scientists at the University of Chicago, however, have found that social isolation does not just affect the elderly, widowed or retired. Up to 80 per cent of Americans under the age of 18 reported being lonely at least some of the time, while 40 per cent people aged over 65 complained that they regularly felt lonely, even if they had friends or family that they can call on. Overall, a third of the population said they suffered from chronic loneliness.

Our online lifestyle and its isolationist activities, social mobility, the subsequent breakdown of communities, working from home, and our competitive tendencies – prevalent around the world – have all come together to create this age of loneliness.

‘Loneliness is not the same as being alone,’ says Dr Upatel. ‘One can be alone and not feel lonely. People can even enjoy being alone.

‘On the other hand, people with a solid circle of friends may feel lonely even if it doesn’t seem so from the perspective of
 an outsider.

‘Most people experience loneliness when they are not able to establish satisfying relationships with others. Being social beings, this can be a very painful feeling.

‘They may feel rejected, not loved, not worthy and guilty or experience an inner emptiness. If the loneliness persists, other symptoms like fatigue, concentration and memory problems may occur.

‘Loneliness and depression have a reciprocal relationship. Loneliness can be a risk factor for depression and suicide, as well as for other disorders such as addiction and even Alzheimer’s.’

As a matter of fact, social isolation is as high a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism, depression, anxiety and suicide are all more prevalent among those who are lonely, say experts.

Dr Louise Hawkley, a senior research scientist at the National Opinion Research Centre, University of Chicago, conducted a study among those who complained of feeling lonely and miserable, including children. It found that by the time they reached adolescence, many socially isolated teenagers began to suffer from depression and occasional suicidal thoughts.

Additionally, the more times they felt lonely during their childhood and adolescence, the greater the risk to their cardiovascular health. By the age of 26, they were more likely to suffer from high cholesterol and blood pressure and be more overweight than their social peers. Loneliness contributed to the onset of dementia from the age of 50.

In a recent edition of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, psychologists focused on some of the potential causes and risks of loneliness. ‘Many people thought of loneliness as a transient state – something almost everyone experiences, but that is relatively short-lived,’ said Dr David Sbarra, a psychologist at the University of Arizona and editor of the report.

‘However, as we learned that some people are chronically lonely, we began to see that the topic has considerable public health importance.’

According to one of the studies the journal published, Professor John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology, and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, and his colleagues suggested that the feeling of loneliness is part of a biological warning system that someone has strayed too far from their social community.

It says that loneliness provides a motivation to reconnect with others who may protect us from predators or provide other survival benefits.

‘One of the benefits of sociality is mutual protection and assistance, and being isolated or on the social perimeter can represent a dangerous circumstance,’ the authors wrote.

‘The cumulative research suggests that the brain has evolved to put individuals into a short-term, self-preservation mode when they find themselves without companionship or mutual protection/assistance.’

Moreover, after conducting a survey, psychologists at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, stated: ‘In light of mounting evidence that social isolation and loneliness are increasing in society, it seems prudent to add them to the list of public health concerns’.

‘As a first step, there is a need for increased public awareness – and awareness among health-care providers – that loneliness is a condition that, like chronic pain, can become an affliction for almost anyone.’

The research points to a joint campaign by O, The Oprah Magazine, Dr Sanjay Gupta and Skype, which is encouraging people in the US to find more connections in their daily routines.

‘Over a given period, people who have strong ties to family, friends, or co-workers have a 50 per cent greater chance of outliving those with fewer social connections,’ Dr Gupta wrote on www.oprah.com last year.

‘If our relationships can have such an effect on our overall health, why don’t we prioritise spending time with the people around us as much as we do exercising and eating right?’

The UK government, along with various charities, has developed several initiatives to improve the quality of life for those suffering from chronic loneliness, and raise awareness about the issue, particularly among the older generation.

Award-winning journalist and campaigner Esther Rantzen set up The Silver Line, a 24-hour confidential hotline providing information, advice and friendship to older people. Having founded the child protection charity Childline in 1986, Esther started the former driven by her feelings of loneliness following the death of her husband.

In its first year, the helpline received more than 300,000 calls. That figure now stands at over 425,000.

‘We’ve got into a culture in Britain in which older people feel that they don’t want to be a burden, they want to live independently as long as they can,’ says Esther. ‘A lot of people take pride in their independence and have too much pride to ask for help. But the fact is that we aren’t very well suited to living entirely on our own. We’re not those sort of animals – human beings need each other.

‘That you may be disabled or not be able to get out doesn’t mean you’re not of any use.

‘I think the greatest gift you can give people who are suffering unhappiness is hope that things will be better tomorrow.’

Loneliness has long been considered an affliction of the elderly, rearing its ugly head when a partner dies or mobility is impaired with age.

‘Loneliness can happen to everyone,’ says Dr Upatel. ‘It’s understandable if an elderly person living in a care facility may feel lonely if family members and lifelong friends are dying. These are external factors that one cannot influence.

‘People are at greater risk to suffer from loneliness if they experienced it during their childhood; for example, if they were rejected by their parents or bullied in school.

‘The fear of further rejection and a negative self-perception can make it difficult to establish new relationships. This again is experienced as loneliness and rejection.

‘It can be a vicious circle.’

A recent UK survey revealed that 80 per cent of young people suffer from loneliness despite living in an era of gathering countless online ‘friends’.

A staggering 43 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds admitted they wished they had more friends, and a third admitted they found it hard to make new friends and didn’t know how to form new relationships. Moreover many said they were more likely to interact with friends online than in person, and that seeing what their friends were up to via social media like Facebook increased their feelings of isolation.

Chloe Jackson, 19, from Norfolk, who had 1,000 friends on Facebook and still battled loneliness, appeared on the UK TV show This Morning last April to discuss her feelings on the issue.

‘You look at all the things your friends are doing on social media – where they have checked into a restaurant and tagged their friends, or shared pictures of themselves out having fun – and you’re sitting at home not there. During my A levels, I spent lot of time indoors revising, but you still see all these people having fun without you and it’s hard not to take that personally.’

She added that some people create an online persona that doesn’t truly reflect how they are feeling and as a result, she often feels under pressure to do likewise.

‘It makes you feel down all the time. You are expected to be a massively happy person like you are on social media, then you start doubting the friends you have got. I have 1000 friends on Facebook, but I don’t have 1,000 friends in real life.’

This Morning’s agony aunt, Denise Robertson, advised people to be proactive if they are feeling lonely. She suggested joining more groups, taking up a new hobby or organising an event like a coffee morning in order to make new friends. ‘Friendship like love does not climb in your window; if you don’t go out, you won’t find it,’ she added.

In Dubai, signing up on websites such as Meetup can help you channelise your interests into constructive relationship-building endeavours. For instance, if you love volunteering, certain prominent groups post a constant roster of activities for members to sign up for, and if you enjoy learning languages, you can enjoy group sessions with native speakers to up your game and make new friends in the bargain.

‘In these times of social media, people should not forget to focus on the quality of relationships,’ says Dr Upatel.

‘It’s become a common misconception that the more Facebook/Instagram friends, likes and followers one has, the better their social life is. It is quite the contrary.

‘One has to invest time in a good relationship on a regular basis. This is only possible with a limited number of relationships. Quality, not quantity is key.’

*Name changed

By Sarah Gibbons

By Sarah Gibbons