An article in the UK Times made a claim, based on results from research, that loneliness is the health equivalent of smoking half a packet of cigarettes per day.
Really? That simile seems like a long bow, but other studies indicate that loneliness causes chronic stress in the body systems, resulting in an increased level of cortisol flowing from the adrenal glands into body organs. In turn this evokes a chronic inflammatory response, now generally recognised as unfavourable for continued health.
In common with other risk factors, like poor nutrition or a lack of physical activity, a feeling of aloneness can create body changes that can increase the risk of stroke by 37%, and heart attack 29%. Don’t forget dementia. It’s all tied in.
Part of a self perpetuating round robin of damage to mind and body is like Hemingway’s character Mike, in the novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’, who comments about bankruptcy – “Two ways,”’ he says,’ first gradually, then suddenly’”.
Health deterioration is similar. Nearly always, prevention works better than repair. Of course there are no guarantees.
Figures From 1981-2021 indicate that single person households grew from 18% to 26%. That’s over 1 in four people who now live alone. That’s one household in four.
Does that mean living alone is a risk factor for health? Not necessarily. While many are forced into aloneness through loss of partner or economic reasons, some people prefer to live alone. After a dysfunctional or abusive relationship it may come as a relief.
If it is a choice to be alone, it’s less of a risk factor. There are other risks, such as falling over and not able to summon help.
Single women are more likely to have a positive situation with better education and prestige than middle-aged men, less often by choice than women.
Some people in marriage feel alone. . Maybe Elvis hit the question in his song, ‘Are you lonesome?’
A remedy is to feel a sense of belonging, as in a tribal sense. For example, community volunteering offers a remedy for loneliness. Men’s sheds are booming all over the country.
It’s hard to measure issues that involve emotion, feeling or energy but there is one risk common factor just as risky for multi-organ damage that can be measured and treated by medical science.
Before the great Tina Turner died recently, she left us a message with a warning. She was diagnosed with high blood pressure in 1978 and was not informed it was a risk factor to life and health. She thought it was her ‘normal’.
This measurable and treatable condition caused kidney failure and unnecessary death in this active woman in her early 80s. It’s dangerous because it’s clinically silent.
From direct experience over about 20 years, I agree that it can be a good idea to keep blood pressure in ‘the sweet spot’. It’s a very mysterious condition. The great danger is its silent operation in damage to many organs including brain and kidney, gradually, then suddenly. High blood pressure is not something to flirt with and is important business between patient and their GP.
We know that life is a risky business but there are some known risks that we can deal with. Loneliness and high blood pressure are both high risk factors and both are treatable. Become a volunteer, play cards, walk a dog and have your blood pressure checked. Oh, and don’t take up smoking.
(Dr Miller is a retired GP)