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Is there a cure for loneliness?

June 14, 2023
Over thousands of years, our bodies have learnt to value loneliness as something of a warning signal – evolution has turned us into animals who must seek out social connection in the same way we need food and water to survive.

Yet we are increasingly finding ourselves lonely. Around one million younger people (aged 16-29) are chronically lonely, and the number of over-50s experiencing loneliness is set to reach two million by 2025. This month, America’s Surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murthy, denounced loneliness as being as “dangerous to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day”, and called it a public health emergency.

It seems this evolutionary tool is blunt, and as such we’re now in what Dr Murthy considers an ‘epidemic’. So this Loneliness Awareness Week we’re asking: could there be a cure for loneliness?

What is loneliness? 

It’s not to be confused with social isolation – which is related, but not the same. The latter refers to the quantity of relationships one may have; social isolation can usually be overcome by increasing the number of people one chooses to spend time with.

Loneliness, however, is a little muddier. It’s a “subjective feeling about the gap between a person’s desired levels of social contact and their actual level of social contact,” according to Age UK. “It refers to the perceived quality of the person’s relationships.” You can be surrounded by people, and still be lonely. These feelings can take a long time to change. 

Is loneliness different in each person?

Loneliness can come to people and be experience in all different kinds of ways. “Many things can trigger loneliness,” says Dr Deborah Lee, from Dr Fox Online Pharmacy. “It could be a divorce or relationship breakup, or a bereavement. It may be an illness or living with a disability, including a learning disability. You start to experience the emotional pain of feeling alone, as your stress response has been activated, and stress and anxiety symptoms set in.”

The way men and women experience loneliness can be different too. Dr Lee explains: “A 2021 study found men living alone or with a non-partner, doubled their risk of death by suicide, whereas in women this had no effect. For men, living arrangements and emotional support are vital for their mental health.”

Women can also feel the strain, but in a different way. A recent study suggested that women feel more lonely as their careers progress; in a survey of around 600 men and women, 55% of women at senior leadership level have felt lonely in the past month.

"You start to experience the emotional pain of feeling alone, as your stress response has been activated, and stress and anxiety symptoms set in.”

- Dr Deborah Lee, Dr Fox Online Pharmacy

It can also come down to careers. A 2018 study by the Harvard Business Review found doctors (alongside lawyers) felt the loneliest of all workers.

In several studies observing the correlation between isolation, loneliness and burnout in doctors, it was found that the loss of meaningful contact with colleagues and patients meant physicians were feeling lonelier than ever. And these links don’t just affect doctors – 99% of patients believe their doctor’s workplace satisfaction directly impacts the quality of care they receive.

And they might be on the money. A Mayo Clinic study found doctors who reported signs of burnout commit twice as many medical errors than those without symptoms. (Last year we spoke about how people in healthcare can support each other through loneliness – take a look here.)

How does loneliness affect us?

Loneliness can affect us in myriad ways, some of which can be detrimental to our health.

“When we feel lonely, this activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), causing an outpouring of adrenaline and cortisol,” Dr Lee explains. “This causes the heart to beat faster, and blood pressure rises, meaning the heart is working harder.”

Dr Lee continues: “Chronic loneliness affects brain function and can alter the natural dopamine response. When we feel happy, this leads to raised levels of dopamine as part of the brain’s natural reward system. If we are lonely, and this is not activated, neurophysiological changes can occur in the brain resulting in poorer cognitive performance. Loneliness is known to be associated with poorer cognitive function.”

And loneliness not only makes you feel bad – it is bad for you.

“Loneliness has been found to have a 26% increase in all-cause premature mortality, as well as a 50% increase in dementia,” says Dr Lee. “It’s also associated with a higher risk of depression, anxiety and death by suicide – in one study, loneliness was thought to be the underlying cause of depression in 18% of patients.”

Beyond this, Dr Lee also notes a 30% increase in heart disease and a 30% increased risk of stroke. “In patients with heart failure, being lonely increased the risk of death by a factor of four.”

So, is there a cure for loneliness?

Despite the health risks, right now loneliness is simply considered part of the human condition. It is not clinically recognised, with no diagnosis and, crucially, no treatment.

But there have been efforts to find a cure for loneliness - a pill has even been considered.

Research has found when mice are socially isolated, their levels of pregnenolone - a steroid created naturally by the body – decreased. In 2019, neuroscientist Dr Stephanie Cacioppo began trialling a pill containing the steroid, which found to help combat the anxiety that comes with feelings of loneliness.

But unfortunately, there's currently no proof of efficacy, and so no reliable remedy - not yet, at least. “Loneliness is not something that can be 'cured' overnight but needs a stepwise approach to help improve it,” advises Dr Lee.

So for the meantime, we must rely on nonpharmacological pursuits to cure our loneliness.

Dr Lee's tips for feeling less lonely

  1. Start with improving self-care. It's important to be kind to yourself and take good care of yourself. This means eating a balanced, nutritious diet, getting the required seven hours of sleep per night and taking regular physical exercise.

  2. Think about the hobbies and past times you enjoy. What can you do at home, such as colouring, cooking or sewing? What might you like to do away from home such as joining a class?

  3. Think of the people you do know. It's vital to stay connected. It's time to reach out with a phone call or a text message. Get some face-to-face meetings in your diary. Getting out and staying connected will make all the difference. If you are invited to an event, say yes, and go give it your best shot.

  4. Who can you confide in? A problem shared is a problem halved. Perhaps there is one person you can talk to and say how you feel. Having someone listen is half the battle.

  5. This is a marathon and not a sprint. Take it one step at a time. Try and be kind to others. This could be opening the door for someone, giving up your seat on the bus, or walking your neighbour's dog. Being kind to other people is very uplifting and will help your self-esteem and self-confidence.

  6. What classes could you join? For example, a book club, a walking group, a choir or an art group. Going once a week to meet a group of people may seem daunting at first but it will soon seem very normal, and you will reap the benefits.

  7. Could you be a volunteer? There are many ways to do this – volunteering in a hospital, at a clinic or in a charity shop. Volunteers have significant health benefits from volunteering including lower blood pressure and living longer! 

  8. Why not make an appointment to see your GP social prescriber? They can signpost you to many different options, providing practical and emotional support.