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Loneliness & Social Isolation

Though often considered together, it is important to draw a distinction between social isolation and loneliness:

  • Social Isolation is an objective status and can be defined by the quantity of social relationships and contacts
  • Loneliness is a subjective experience (a negative emotion) associated with a perceived gap in the quality and quantity of relationships that we have and of those we want.

There is no ‘typical profile’ of someone at risk of social isolation or loneliness and patterns are not equally distributed across the population.

We know that social isolation and loneliness can contribute to poor health and wellbeing and conversely, people with poor physical and/or mental health may become more isolated due to the barriers their conditions present. Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%

Scottish Government has identified loneliness and isolation as a major health threat to Scotland’s population. Previously initiatives have focussed on the needs of the elderly and their informal carers. It is now recognised through the growing body of evidence that these issues affect and are impinging at all life stages

88% of people feel connected to friends and family

It is not possible to provide prevalence data on social isolation as there is no agreed set of indicators in Scotland. However, data routinely collected through Scottish surveys indicate that:

  • Social contact – 6% of adults had contact with family, friends or neighbours less than once or twice a week
  • Social support – 14% had fewer than three people they could turn to for comfort and support in a personal crisis
  • Neighbourhood contact – in 2013, 18% had limited regular social contact in their neighbourhood
  • Community involvement – nearly three quarters (73%) felt not very much/not at all involved in the local community
  • Social trust – half of people in Scotland felt that ‘most people can be trusted’ (50%), while a similar proportion (48%) felt that ‘[you] can’t be too careful in dealing with people’
  • Social participation – over a quarter (27%) of people in Scotland have volunteered and 46% have been involved in some form of community action to help improve their local area
  • Where trend data are available over time, these figures are relatively stable, showing no major changes in levels of social isolation in Scotland over recent years.

Although rates of loneliness vary with age and gender, there is some evidence to suggest that adults in midlife and the ‘oldest old’ are at increased risk. The effect of loneliness and isolation on mortality is comparable to the impact of well-known risk factors such as obesity, and has a similar influence as cigarette smoking. Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke. It puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline and lonely individuals are more prone to depression. Carers UK suggests that eight out of 10 carers feel lonely or isolated.

Academic research is clear that preventing and alleviating loneliness is vital to enabling older people to remain as independent as possible. Lonely individuals are more likely to:

  • Visit their GP, have higher use of medication, higher incidence of falls and increased risk factors for long term care
  • Undergo early entry into residential or nursing care
  • Use accident and emergency services independent of chronic illness.