Loneliness is damaging men's health warns mental health boss

Loneliness is impacting the physical and mental health of Australians and men are feeling the impact, according to the CEO of a leading mental health charity.

According to Kim O' Neill, CEO of the telephone and online counselling specialists On the Line, men are bearing the brunt of the effect of loneliness on physical health.

"Studies have shown that socially isolated or lonely men had a 90% increased risk of cardiovascular death and more than double the risk of death from an accident or suicide," says O' Neill, whose charity runs the national MensLine service. 

O’Neill is calling for more focus on the impact of loneliness and its link to poor health and shortened life expectancy and says there is ‘decades of research’ to show the devastating consequences of social isolation.

Naomi I. Eisenberger and Julianne Holt-Lunstad have led the way investigating and reporting on loneliness and its lesser-known consequences such as:

  • Chronic loneliness, isolation and living alone actually increases risk of an early death by 26 – 32%.
  • Those with fewer than three people they could confide in and count on for social support were roughly twice as likely to die from a vast array of diseases than those with more confidants.
  • Greater social connection resulted in a 50% reduced risk of early death.
  • As a predictor of premature death, insufficient social connection is a bigger risk factor than obesity and the equivalent of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day

Writing for Psychology Today, author Jennifer Latson (The Boy Who Loved Too Much) says researchers aren’t being metaphorical when they speak of loneliness as a disease, and that it has reached epidemic proportions.

“More than just a mopey, Charlie Brown-esque mindset, loneliness causes serious hurt, acting on the same parts of the brain as physical pain,” she writes.

“Recent studies are revealing that the subjective feeling of loneliness—the internal experience of disconnection or rejection—is at the heart of the problem.”

O’Neill provides a short list of physical ailments that arise out of loneliness including:

  • Poor cardiovascular health and heart disease;
  • Stroke;
  • Obesity;
  • Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s;
  • Diabetes;
  • High blood pressure;
  • Cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people;
  • Respiratory illnesses like the common cold;
  • Aches, pains and headaches;
  • Diet problems such as loss of appetite, sudden weight gain or loss.

 

As well as provoking tangible physical symptoms, loneliness might even be contagious.

"People on the edge of the network spread their loneliness to others and then cut their ties," wrote Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School in Boston. "It’s like the edge of a sweater: You start pulling at it and it unravels the network."

Which is why O’Neill is calling on state and federal bodies to address loneliness along with other root causes of mental illness, “to deliver a more holistic, person-centered approach that acts to prevent mental health issues from growing even further.”

TAKE ACTION FOR MEN'S HEALTH

Read Kim O'Neill's blog, part one and part two (ontheline) 

Read A Cure for Disconnection (Psychology Today) 

Read Loneliness Might Be Contagious (Wired) 

Download Social Isolation and Health Chapter for The Wiley Encyclopedia of Health Psychology Mona Moieni, M.A. & Naomi I. Eisenberger, Ph.D. (PDF) 

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