Loneliness as bad for you as smoking 15 a day

Margaret McCulloch, convener of the Equal Opportunities Committee
Margaret McCulloch, convener of the Equal Opportunities Committee

When you think of life-saving medicine, it’s unlikely that tea parties, bingo afternoons or even a friendly phone call spring to mind.

Such activities aren’t normally associated with saving lives – but it turns out that’s exactly what they do.

Loneliness is increasingly being recognised as one of the biggest epidemics of modern life.

A recent report by a Scottish Parliament committee is adding its voice to the calls by campaigners who want it to be seen as a public health issue.

Loneliness isn’t just a few miserable hours on Christmas day; it has been found to be linked to dementia, malnutrition and long-term poor health.

Studies have found it increases the risk of heart disease and puts people at greater risk of blood clots.

In fact, loneliness is estimated to be as bad for people’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The Scottish Parliament Equal Opportunities committee, which compiled the report, spoke to people across the country to identify the scale of the problem.

They heard stories of people making appointments with their GP every Monday because they had no-one else to talk to; a man who spent his days riding around on buses because he had nothing else to do; and one woman who spent months without electricty, scavenging for food because she had no-one to ask for help.

Such stories may be extreme but the committee members began to realise they were just the tip of an iceberg. And one that is just as much a threat to public health as poverty and social housing, the committee came to believe.

Committee convener Margaret McCulloch (pictured) said: “When we began our inquiry into loneliness and social isolation and its effect on older and young people, we were appalled to learn just how bound up social isolation and loneliness are with long-term conditions and chronic illness.

“For younger people we were told the early effects of bullying and a lack of social inclusion can lead to isolation, in particular for disabled and LGBT young people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds.”

Michelle McCrindle, of the charity The Food Train, is in no doubt how serious the situation is – but she also sees hope among the work being done across the country.

She said: “We need to address loneliness as something that can be tackled and accept that it is as prevalent among older people as things such as dementia and malnutrition.

“We need to build the issue into our strategies and vision for looking after people.

“Loneliness happens to people but it can be tackled and there are ways and means of doing that, but we must start by building it in and acknowledging that it exists.”

No-one involved pretends it’s going to be easy: more than 80,000 people aged 65 and over, living in Scotland, said they always or often felt lonely. Across the UK the figure is more than a million.

And it’s not just a problem for the elderly.

Between April 2008 and March 2009, the charity ChildLine counselled 5525 children about loneliness, sadness and isolation as their main problem; a further 4399 children were counselled about loneliness as an additional problem.

It can affect all ages. Family relationship problems; bullying; physical abuse; depression; mental health problems – all of these problems can spiral into social isolation.

Carers, too, can find themselves exhausted and up against tight finances which don’t leave much scope for leisure. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

That’s the key message from the charities who are making a difference; transforming one life at a time with community projects that reach out to lonely people.

Many of the stories told to the committee had positive outcomes.

Margaret McCullouch said: “We met with a wide range of charities and voluntary organisations, doing outstanding work in tackling the problem.

“But the good practice of these organisations is often under-recognised, under-supported and misunderstood.”

She cited the charity Cumbernauld Action Care for the Elderly who told the committee: “We are not just a fluffy charity which provides trips and tea dances.

“We are achieving real results and helping older people stay happy and healthy, and living in their own homes for longer.

“We actively promote their rights, we point out areas where they need more statutory support. We get things done, we are an asset to the area and to Social Work and NHS, and they need to get on board treating us an equal partner.”

Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, believes spending money to support initiatives such as these would be well worth it.

He said: “The sums of money that are spent on prescriptions vastly outweigh the sums of money that are available to support the kind of initiatives that would make a difference to people’s lives.

“That is out of kilter and we need to turn it around.”