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Loneliness: its effect on health and strategies to overcome it

March 27, 2014

Loneliness isn’t a new phenomenon. Many have experienced it at some point in their lives as a particularly negative state. Not only does loneliness affect individuals’ well-being, recent research from the University of Chicago shows that it also affects physical health. Dr. John Cacioppo, a psychology professor and lead author of the new study, said that loneliness in old age may increase the risk of premature death by up to 14 percent; almost as much as poverty. Extreme loneliness is twice as detrimental to life expectancy as obesity.

Photo of Dr.John Cacioppo

Dr. John Cacioppo

In an interview with USA Today, Dr. Cacioppo recognized the value of relationships and said that, “Maintaining quality relationships, engaging in meaningful activities with others and practicing healthy behaviors increase the odds of a long and happier life.”

Loneliness isn’t the same as being alone. Loneliness includes feelings of isolation and disconnection from friends, family and/or the community. It’s a feeling that one doesn’t belong. Loneliness can be temporary or long-term and it’s a state that can change during a person’s life.  A CBC article shows that populations at risk include women, post-secondary students and older adults, especially those with lower income and education.

The findings of the study were presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Chicago. In summary, loneliness affects longevity through decreasing resilience during times of stress, perpetuating a negative outlook on life, interfering with sleep, elevating blood pressure and increasing levels of the hormone cortisol, which negatively affects memory and mood. Other studies have found that loneliness can make people more likely to spend money that they don’t have and research has linked loneliness to a weakened immune system.

One strategy for overcoming loneliness is volunteering for a meaningful cause. Volunteers will likely find that others value and appreciate their help, leading to positive social interactions. Additional strategies include participating in group activities and acquiring social skills training. Also, addressing chronic physical and/or mental health conditions has been associated with reducing loneliness.

What CMHA is doing to help

Living Life to the Full course

Living Life to the Full (LLTTF) is an interactive course delivered by CMHA branches across Canada and other strategic partner organizations. It is designed to help adults aged 19 and over to cope more effectively with life challenges, such as social isolation. Based on the cognitive-behavioural therapy model, LLTTF provides practical strategies to help people to better manage their thoughts, feelings and emotions and begin to live healthier, happier and more fulfilling lives. LLTTF is also a great resource for those supporting friends or family members who are dealing with mental health issues. Sample sessions are available online.

Mood Walks

Mood Walks creates opportunities for older adults living with mental health conditions to enjoy social interaction while being physically active. Mood Walks works in partnership with mental health agencies as well as Hike Ontario and Conservation Ontario to launch new walking programs, connect individuals with local hiking clubs, and improve access to parks, hiking trails, conservation areas, and other resources in the community.

Mood Walks is linked to Conservation Ontario’s Healthy Hikes Challenge. Healthy Hikes takes place from May 1st to October 31st 2014. Residents can get together with friends and explore the 270 conservation areas available in Ontario. The program also gives participants the opportunities to track their progress online for a chance to win great prizes.

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