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Loneliness 'a major public health concern'

Published on 28 January 2016 12:01 AM

Loneliness a major public health concern, say councils

Councils are warning that loneliness needs to be recognised as a major public health concern, with fears it could pile further strain on to local services, unless action is taken.

There is thought to be more than one million people aged over 65 who are lonely - around 10-13 per cent of older people.

In addition to the personal suffering caused, loneliness is heaping pressure on council and health services, as it is often the tipping point for referrals to adult social care and cause for a significant number of GP visits.

More than three quarters of GPs say they see between one and five lonely people a day.

Loneliness, which in the past may have been viewed as a trivial matter, is a serious condition that can severely affect a person's mental and physical health, and increase the risk of premature death by 30 per cent.

Research shows loneliness can be more harmful than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

It can also increase the risk of high blood pressure, with one study finding that lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 370 councils, is today highlighting examples where action is being taken to tackle loneliness, through activities and services in the community to provide support to those affected.

A publication offering guidance for councils, Combating Loneliness, has been produced by the LGA in partnership with Age UK and the Campaign to End Loneliness.

It will be launched at next week's Annual Public Health Conference, hosted by the LGA and ADPH (Association of Directors of Public Health), on Wednesday, 3 February.

Examples of authorities and partners tackling loneliness include:

Rotherham Clinical Commissioning Group runs a "Social Prescribing" scheme with GPs to identify those at risk of loneliness and carry out home visits to link people with voluntary and community services, such as befriending, community groups, carers' respite or sensory services. Rotherham found 83 per cent of participants experienced positive change, reducing inpatient admissions by 21 per cent and A&E attendances by 20 per cent. The scheme brings together health, social care and voluntary sector professionals who plan care for people with long-term conditions.

Exeter Age UK has a Men in Sheds scheme to bring men together to socialise over refurbishing tools and garden equipment. Regular attendees act as "buddies" for older men who wouldn't otherwise be able to take part. This brought about a reduction in loneliness and increased social contact between older men.

Warwickshire Age UK's Psychological Support Services is a county-wide scheme funded by Warwickshire Council offering a range of interventions aimed at improving wellbeing and supporting older people.

Brighton and Hove Carers Centre Male Carers Support Group - funded by Brighton and Hove Council. The group meets twice a month in community settings such as cafés and has established a monthly coffee morning and a monthly social activity. A core group of men come along regularly, most of whom are caring for their partners.

Cheshire Fire and Rescue and Age UK Cheshire are working in partnership to run Springboard, which targets older people likely to be in need of support, and carries out home visits where people might be signposted to befriending services, tea/coffee clubs and other social and leisure networks.

Councillor Izzi Seccombe, LGA spokesperson for public health, said: 'Loneliness is a significant and growing concern for many older people and is something that is now being identified as a major public health issue.

'Council public health teams are taking action and reducing the need for health and care services in the future.

'The impact of loneliness can be devastating and costly - with consequences comparable to smoking and obesity.

'This can be prevented with early intervention, which a number of councils are already successfully delivering in partnership with volunteer and community organisations.

'As our population profile changes, and we have a larger proportion of over 65s and over 85s, loneliness is becoming an increasingly important public health concern.'

Notes to editors

Recent studies show that:

  • 12 per cent of older people feel trapped in their own home
  • 6 per cent of older people leave their house once a week
  • Nearly 200,000 older people in the UK do not get out of their house or flat
  • 17 per cent of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11 per cent less than once a month
  • More than half (51 per cent) of all people aged 75 and over live alone
  • Loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by 30 per cent

One study found loneliness can be more harmful than smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Julianne Holt-Lundstad stody from 2010: http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316.)

Age UK's Charity Director, Caroline Abrahams, said: 'Loneliness blights the lives of over a million older people, with many going for weeks without any meaningful human contact. It is a serious condition which can be enormously damaging, both mentally and physically. However it's time that people stopped thinking about loneliness as an inevitable part of ageing. At Age UK we believe that we all have a responsibility to take action and that the right interventions can make a huge difference to the older people in our lives.

'This new guidance for councils is a welcome opportunity to shed light on good practice and support the development of promising approaches to tackling loneliness. There is clearly some outstanding work being done to tackle the loneliness epidemic across the country but much more needs to be done. We also want the government to recognise the problem as a major health issue and take urgent action to help those who are most at risk.'

Last updated: Oct 06 2017

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