The epidemic of loneliness needs a Doctor’s prescription. And here it is. Posted on June 6, 2019June 6, 2019 by Richard Roope As I’m a doctor, you’d probably expect me to use the word ‘epidemic’ in the context of a raging disease. But not so this time. There’s an epidemic spoiling lives and even reducing their length with not a virus or a germ in sight. It’s the epidemic of loneliness. More than that, there’s something we can all do to put this epidemic to flight because it doesn’t need special training or skill. In addition, those in their after-work years are the most able to respond. The loneliness epidemic can be summed up with three simple statistics. In the UK– Over 9 million people – that’s almost one in five of the population – say they are always or often lonely There are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people Half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone Of course, there’s a massive difference between being alone and being lonely. Also, it’s not just an issue for those too old to get out and about. This came home to me in my surgery a while back when faced with a teenager asking for help with her low mood. I discovered she had over 1,000 Facebook ‘friends’ yet nearly all her ‘home time’ was spent in her bedroom, on a tablet, keeping up with ‘friends’. When asked if she ever saw any face to face the answer was ‘hardly ever’. My patient’s problem was loneliness. She was constantly ‘without company’ and felt ‘cut off from others’. My ‘prescription? That she should re-discover her dormant hobby of dancing – which would return her to a supportive community, with a shared interest. This simple ‘prescription’ set her on the road to recovery – all without the need for counselling or medication. This one incident throws up lessons important for all of us – Loneliness does harm. Recent research shows loneliness has health implications that go far beyond depression. There good evidence loneliness – Contributes to the development of dementia Increases the risk of physical illness to a greater extent than does raised blood pressure Is a risk factor for heart disease and strokes – having the same impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day Increases the likelihood of someone dying by more than a quarter In addition, lonely people visit their GPs more, take more medication, have a higher incidence of falls, and attend A+ E more. For those who are younger the impact on their health tells a similar story. It is not just an ‘old person’s’ issue Understandably, loneliness has come to be associated with those towards the end of their days, having lost a life-long spouse and peers, and now being house bound. Of course, this is mostly true. However, loneliness is increasingly becoming a feature of our society and seen in all seasons of life, from school age, through to old age, and everything in between. This ought to lead us to keeping our eyes open for loneliness where we would not expect it. As well as seeing the needs among those who are most at risk. Something can be done In the case of my young patient, the remedy was to get out there and engage socially. However, for those in later years that’s seldom an option – with the only solution being for caring people to visit. This leads me to think of the huge benefits in store if more of us took time to seek out those who are lonely and visit from time to time. This seems to be something that should be right up their street for those who are retired and still active. Be it a regular visit, to a car ride, to a lift to a social setting – including to one of the increasing number of activities being run by churches. It is something individuals and couples can do. It is something every church should have in its radar and be responding to in a proactive and intentional way. To explore this further, including for advice on how to become a visitor and befriender, see the AfterWorkNet web pages on The Lonely. Take the medicine yourself It seems unlikely that, at this moment, you fit the ‘lonely’ category. But make sure you keep it that way as it is easy to drift into it. Whatever may happen to you over the coming years, be proactive and engage with others though an old hobby or interest, or by trying a new one. And keep linked, or make links, with a vibrant church and its supportive and loving community. Richard Roope Dr Richard Roope has been a GP for almost 30 years at the same Hampshire practice. He’s also the Lead for Cancer for the Royal College of GPs and Cancer Research UK. Married with three daughters – two also doctors – he’s a member of a lively C of E church in Winchester. Enjoying long distance cycling, Richard has just completed a 12-day 760 charity cycle through the length of Italy.