In Depth

How to combat the deadly problem of loneliness

More than nine million UK adults feel lonely - and it could seriously threaten their health

Britain is in the grips of an epidemic of loneliness - and it is as harmful to sufferers’ health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, a study warns.

The long-awaited report from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness found that more than nine million UK adults are often or always lonely. Three-quarters of GPs say they see up to five patients a day who come in because they are lonely; while the health impact of social isolation is more damaging than well-known risk factors such as being obese, research shows.

The UK has appointed Tracey Crouch to be its first Minister of Loneliness, a suggestion contained in the commission's report. Labour MP Cox - murdered during the EU referendum campaign in 2016 - was “passionate about the issue”, says The Guardian, describing loneliness as a “shocking crisis”.

The commission’s co-chair, Labour MP Rachel Reeves, points to the ever-increasing numbers of people who live alone, or work from home. Writing in the New Statesman, Reeves says: “It sometimes feels like our best friend is the smartphone.”

Solutions to loneliness

“We need to check our relationship balances as often as we check our bank balances,” Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, wrote in an article for the Sky News website. “It’s about day-to-day acts of kindness and making real, human connections with those around us.”

NHS England’s chief nursing officer, Jane Cummings, says reaching out is particularly important in winter, when the combination of loneliness and cold weather can be deadly, leading to a rise in heart attacks and strokes. “Simple acts of companionship” can make a difference, says Cummings, including visiting elderly friends or picking up shopping or prescriptions. 

While loneliness is not just a problem for the elderly, Age UK says that more than a million older people regularly go for more than a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. Schemes to combat the problem have been launched by charities such as Contact the Elderly, which holds free Sunday afternoon tea parties for people over 75 who live alone. A list of helplines and advice is also available on the NHS website

But in the long term, will the UK Minister of Loneliness provide the solution? At the very least, it is a start.

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