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Modern life and technology causing loneliness and ill health

Young and old report greater social isolation, depression and physical illness

Onmedica staff

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Modern life and technological advances are undermining the relationships that are vital to health and well-being causing isolation, loneliness and mental and physical illness according to a new report.

A poll of 2256 adults across the UK carried out for the Mental Health Foundation's (MHF) report The Lonely Society? shows that one in ten people often feel lonely (11%) and half think that people are getting lonelier in general (48%).

The report says the way in which people now live is impacting on their ability to connect with others. More people live alone: the percentage of households occupied by one person doubled from 6% in 1972 to 12% in 2008.

The divorce rate has almost doubled in the past 50 years and the number of lone parent households is rising. People are living longer but many older people are doing so alone. Because of people pursuing careers and education opportunities, many now live further away from their families and the communities they grew up in. Figures show that one in three people would like to live closer to their family to see them more often (35%).

Old-style communities are in decline and the closure of local amenities such as post offices and working men's clubs have had an impact on people for whom they were a focal point, particularly those living on the margins of society and vulnerable to loneliness, such as the elderly, people out of work or those living with a disability.

Children are reporting more experiences of loneliness than in previous years, and middle age is a time when people can find themselves isolated as a result of retirement, children leaving the family home, divorce and bereavement.

MHF chief executive, Andrew McCulloch, said: "Changes to the way we live are putting an increasing number of people at risk of loneliness, which can lead to health problems if chronic. People who find themselves feeling lonely should not have to feel uncomfortable talking about it or asking for help the report says. By raising awareness of the subject we hope to tackle the stigma attached to loneliness and help individuals who are feeling lonely to connect with others."

The statistics reveal that women are more likely than men to feel lonely sometimes (38%, compared with 30%). A greater number of women (47%) than men (36%) have felt depressed because they felt alone, and have sought help for feeling lonely (13% women, compared to 10% men). This is consistent with existing research that women are generally more likely to seek professional help for health related problems.

The report also suggests that a shift in attitudes is also contributing to loneliness. For some, investing time in social activities is seen as less important than work. People feel pressure to be "productive" and busy, and as a consequence neglect vital relationships with friends and family. "Individuals pursuing aspirations in a market-driven world may be doing so at their own expense, and neglecting the basic human need to connect with others," the report says.

Four in ten people polled said they have felt depressed because they felt alone (42%). Persistent loneliness is also linked to stress, as well as poorer functioning of the immune and cardiovascular systems. The MHF says evidence shows that loneliness makes it harder to control the habits and behaviour that can lead to health problems. Lonely middle-aged adults drink more alcohol, have unhealthier diets and take less exercise than the socially contented.

One in five people polled said they spend too much time communicating with family and friends online when they should see them in person (18%). The internet has changed the way people communicate, but some experts argue that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter undermine social skills and the ability to read body language.

The report also concludes that technology doesn't provide the physical contact that benefits well being. "Cognitive function improves when a relationship is physical, as well as intellectual, because of the chemical process that takes place during face-to-face communication. This type of interaction produces the hormone oxytocin, which is thought to underpin the link between social contact and healthy hearts."

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