It seems astonishing, I know, but scientific research suggests that social isolation, in the long term, is as damaging as a 15-a-day cigarette habit or being an alcoholic.
Other studies have found that those with a poor social network are at increased risk of dementia and high blood pressure, that the genes we need to fight off serious viral infections seem to be less active in the lonely than in the rest of the population, and that loneliness may cause cancer or heart disease.
Chicago-based psychologist John Cacioppo, who has studied the phenomenon, explain, ‘Feeling alone and unloved can also make it harder to sleep and even speed the progression of dementia. When time takes its toll on the body, loneliness steepens that slope of descent.’
His work found that loneliness raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol and can push blood pressure up into the danger zone for heart attacks and strokes.
‘We are increasingly living in isolation…partly because we are ageing, also because we are marrying later and having fewer children. There are fewer confidantes and levels of loneliness are going up,’ he says.
It’s all very well saying this but also pretty bleak news for anyone actually affected. Smokers seem to be a priority for the NHS…or at least stopping them from smoking and, therefore, developing health problems that will put a greater strain on resources is.
The lonely, however, are not. There is no patch, inhaler or chewing gum that can alleviate isolation. If we want to augment our social lives, we have to do it ourselves.
And for adults, this can be very hard. Friendships are forged more frequently in younger life – at school, university, in our first jobs.
Everyone is in a new situation, looking to make friends, and this is where we naturally establish relationships that often endure for much of our adult lives. But as we grow older, our friendship base dwindles – bereavement, looking after frail parents, acquaintances moving abroad, retirement, or a partner becoming housebound are all possible factors.
Reports reveal that while divorce rates overall are falling, they are actually rising among the older generations, with the biggest increases seen in the over-60s.
And this figure doesn’t reveal how many couples are still co-habiting but living separate lives – something that, as a psychotherapist specialising in relationship counselling, I know is more common than many admit.
Take Wendy (not her real name), a friend of mine. A doctor in her 60s, she separated from her husband five years ago. They’d been married since their 20s, and their three children were all adults with young families of their own. She was living alone and admitted she was incredibly lonely.
‘I feel as if I’ve spent my life looking after my husband and children, which was a pretty full-time job on top of my career, and now they don’t need me,’ she told me during our first session.
‘I have friends but they all seem to have things to do with their partners.
‘Sometimes, I spend entire weekends not talking to anyone but the shop assistant at Waitrose and the man at the dry cleaners. I’m scared to retire. What will I do with myself?’
It’s not hard to feel sorry for Wendy…but she wasn’t helping herself.
Making new friends as an adult is a challenge, not least due to the fact that everyone else seems to have a cemented social group.
They have someone with whom they can have a coffee or go to a concert with on a Friday night. Unlike a child, we feel we can’t just wander up to a stranger and ask to play. But the people who make friends most easily are those who do exactly that.
Luckily, there are simple steps you can take to help you become more sociable. I know from experience that they work. Start by making yourself approachable.
A basic part of our psyche is that we respond to a friendly, smiling face. It sounds bonkers but try saying ‘hello’ to people you meet on the train, or in the office, or your street. If you see them regularly, maybe next time you will ask how they are.
You’ll either feel this person warm to you and want to talk, or not. If not, it’s no great loss. Next, you need to put yourself in situations where you’ll meet new people. Volunteering can provide excellent opportunities for developing new friendships.
Many of my clients have boosted their social lives by getting involved in environmental projects, or through mentoring or by entering a fun run.
It is also worth trying to find people you regret having lost touch with. Because of today’s technology, this has never been easier. I have re-established two friendships simply by Googling. It’s amazing how many men and women nowadays have an internet presence because of their job or hobbies.
Of course, this can lead to disappointment and not everyone will want to re-establish friendships. But you have to roll with the punches. You can also use the organisations you already belong to in order to make new friends. You may have membership of a gym or tennis club but rarely go.
Maybe you belong to a professional association but never attend its social events. Make more use of these networks. Mix with fellow members and talk to individuals you don’t know.
Look for a club that will further an interest. Whether it’s a book group, or going walking, or amateur dramatics, or a cake decoration or language class, there will be ample chance to get to know other individuals. One of my clients joined a choir.
‘Singing is a joyous activity,’ she told me. ‘And it’s wonderful to be part of a gorgeous sound that you couldn’t possibly create on your own.’
There’s a real sense of ‘togetherness’ when you get hectically active and sweaty with other people. And I have four new friends…as well as increased fitness…to show for it. It may be unrealistic to expect to find a ‘best mate’, so aim to find various pals to do things with.
You can talk politics with one and go to the theatre with another. If you don’t keep up your tally of friends, you can all too easily become one of those pensioners whose only ‘companion’ is the taxi driver who drives them to the doctor.
That’s not healthy…or happy. I don’t want to be one of those people. And I suspect you don’t either.
by Susan Floyd