The loneliness trap: it is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So will it shorten my lifespan?

<span>‘Is it wrong to call a dog darling?’ … Phil Daoust with Romanian rescue Sienna.</span><span>Photograph: Anselm Ebulue/The Guardian</span>
‘Is it wrong to call a dog darling?’ … Phil Daoust with Romanian rescue Sienna.Photograph: Anselm Ebulue/The Guardian

I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about a lonely old age. Closing in on my 61st birthday, eight years into a very happy marriage, I’ve got a wife, two teenage stepkids, an older daughter by an ex, a grandson and four siblings. Most of them at least tolerate me; a few even tell me that they love me. But maybe I’m taking too much for granted. People die, drift apart, fall out – and anyone who knows me will tell you that I can be very irritating.

Fifteen or 20 years from now it’s not inconceivable that none of my family will want to have much to do with me.

As for my close friends, some of whom I have known for more than 40 years, well, a) they’re obviously getting on a bit, and b) I’ve done a terrible job of keeping in touch with them. What with the lockdowns, and giving up booze, I have almost forgotten how to socialise. Almost four years after I stopped drinking, I’m not afraid of relapsing, but the sober me finds it just a little harder to enjoy pubs or wine bars, and has just a little less to say for himself. When I’m feeling charitable, I remind myself he’s also less likely to end the evening spouting bollocks.

What with the lockdowns and giving up booze, I have almost forgotten how to socialise

Maybe I’ll just be left with a dog or two. That might not be so bad. I’m a late convert to the waggy-and-licky cause, but for the past six years I’ve been lucky enough to look after two Romanian rescues. Sienna, a fatheaded staffie-dalmatian, and Stevie, a bogbrush-tailed quarter-alsatian, are always glad to see me, always good company. I talk to them more than you might think healthy. Is it wrong to call a dog darling?

Just out of curiosity (I talk to dogs!), I decided to see how I rank right now on the UCLA loneliness scale, introduced in 1978 and, after several revisions, still one of the most popular measures. How often do I feel alone, asks the online test. Never, rarely, sometimes, often? How often do I feel my interests and ideas are not shared by those around me? Never, rarely, sometimes, often? Twenty questions like this and I score 37 out of a possible 80. This represents a “moderate” degree of loneliness, as opposed to “low”, “moderately high” or “high”. That’s a little worse than I expected. Stevie, Sienna, you’re not pulling your weight.

We should probably pin down what we mean by loneliness, as opposed to solitude, aloneness, social isolation, disconnectedness etc. For Henry Rollins, the former Black Flag frontman turned writer, it’s something that “adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better.” I’m going to file that under Poetic Nonsense. The Campaign to End Loneliness (CEL), more usefully, defines it as “a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of the social relationships that we have, and those that we want.”

This mismatch can ruin lives, especially as we get older, the grim reaper scythes his way through our loved ones, and retirement or infirmity undoes all the weak ties that come with the daily commute or weekly shop. Almost 4 million Britons are chronically lonely, according to the CEL, meaning they feel that way “often or always”. In 2022 Michael, a 58-year-old who had lost his mother a couple of years before, told the Mental Health Foundation his life was “like being on a desert island”. “When you have someone who really understands you,” he said, “who really gets you in a deeper way than other people, when you lose that person it’s quite a hole.”

“People who are often or always lonely,” the foundation noted, “have a higher risk of developing certain mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. This kind of loneliness is also associated with increased thoughts of suicide.”

Loneliness follows a U-shaped curve, with a peak in young adulthood, a trough in midlife, then another rise after 60

It’s hardly surprising that one manifestation of misery encourages another. But loneliness is as bad for our bodies as it is for our minds. The US’s top doctor, surgeon general Vivek Murthy, is so worried that last year he issued an urgent warning about the “epidemic” of loneliness and social isolation. (These are not quite the same thing, though there’s a big overlap. Social isolation describes an objective lack of social connections, while loneliness is all about perception. You can be lonely without being socially isolated – and, if you’re lucky, vice versa.)

Murthy didn’t mince his words. “Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk for premature death by 26% and 29% respectively,” he wrote. “More broadly, lacking social connection can increase the risk for premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. In addition, poor or insufficient social connection is associated with increased risk of disease, including a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. Furthermore” – you’re spoiling us, Dr Murthy – “it is associated with increased risk for anxiety, depression and dementia. Additionally, the lack of social connection may increase susceptibility to viruses and respiratory illness.”

Loneliness can hit at any age: Joe Harrison, a campaign manager for the Marmalade Trust, the charity that hosts the current Loneliness Awareness Week, describes it as “a natural feeling that kind of ebbs and flows across our lifetime”. According to researchers from the US’s Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, it follows a sort of U-shaped curve, with a peak in young adulthood, a trough in midlife, then another rise after 60, becoming particularly steep around 80.

Looking back, my own loneliest moments were in my teens and 20s – at school, in my first year away from home at university, as an English assistant in France, during a couple of unhappy relationships. I felt much more connected to the world in my 40s, even though I was mostly living on my own, in a mountaintop shack where I could go for days without seeing another human.

There’s something particularly brutal about loneliness striking in your 70s, 80s or 90s, when there’s so little time to grow through it. It seems so final. How do you get your head round Ruth Lowe’s observation that “3 million older people say that TV or the radio is their main source of company”? Lowe is the head of loneliness services for Age UK, and many of the risk factors that she cites seem more intractable than, say, settling into a new school or a different job.

“Things like bereavement, having physical and mental health conditions or needing to care for a loved one mean that older people are very much at risk of loneliness,” Lowe says. “And other life changes, such as losing the things many of us take for granted – like having good eyesight and hearing, or having the ability to walk to the shops – can lead to people spending countless hours alone with no one to talk to and ending up feeling isolated and invisible.” That’s why Age UK has an actual head of loneliness services, as well as a 24-hour Silver Line helpline for the over-55s, a telephone friendship service and face-to-face befriending.

Many of us struggle to admit we are lonely. ‘There’s a tremendous stigma,’ says Mark Rowland of the Mental Health Foundation

I do wonder how bad things would have to get before I accepted I needed help. Mark Rowland, the chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, says many of us struggle to admit that we are lonely, even to ourselves. “There’s still a tremendous stigma,” he says. “As a society we’re more fragmented, there are factors that individually we can’t control, but we internalise the cause of loneliness as being a defect of our personality – we’re not interesting enough, we’re not valuable enough. That can develop into a spiral of lack of confidence and withdrawal.” In other words, you feel lonely, you avoid other people, you feel more lonely …

To quote Michael again, loneliness is “corrosive”, “eats away at your self-image”, “makes you question the value of your life”.

As I learned from my long-ago experience of depression, when I spent months thinking it was everything around me that was falling to pieces, rather than my mind, naming what you are feeling can be the first step in doing something about it. “One of the messages we want to get across,” Rowland says, “is that loneliness is not insurmountable at any stage of life. But it’s very difficult when it’s, let’s say, rusting away at your mental and emotional life without you even naming it. Bringing it into the light and sharing that with yourself and then with others is really the first step to breaking that cycle.”

A plan for loneliness

Eight suggestions from the Mental Health Foundation:

Try to keep busy
This might involve a hobby such as gardening, going to the gym or even sorting out your kitchen cupboards, jigsaws, puzzles or knitting. Small activities can give you energy and positive feelings. It’s important these things are fun or fulfilling – be careful about working too hard or watching TV shows simply as a distraction. This will only delay or suppress your feelings and could actually make your mental health worse.

Stimulate your mind
This could include taking courses or listening to podcasts about anything from comedy to fitness. Just listening to the voice of someone you like can help you feel less lonely.

Get moving
Physical exercise can help with loneliness. It can be as simple as having a walk in the park when you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. Alternatively, you could listen to music and dance around your living room. (Be aware of your neighbours, though.)

Try to engage with the people you meet
It can be hard to talk to others when you’re feeling lonely. However, trying to connect with the people you meet as you go about your day can be helpful. Even catching someone’s eye and saying “Hi” as you walk along can make you feel better. By sharing a polite greeting, you might find you give someone else a lift, too.

Find people who ‘get’ you
There are great benefits in finding people who have been through similar experiences to you. Look for connections in local groups or on social media.

Spend time with pets
Not only do animals provide us with unconditional love and support; they also help to give structure to our days and even encourage us to get out and connect with others. Interaction with pets is also shown to help reduce stress levels.

Try to use social media in a positive way
Social media can help your mental health – or harm it. Try to find digital communities that share your interests and passions. Most importantly, be aware of how you feel when you use social media and focus on topics and activities that work best for you.

Talking therapies can help
Talking therapy can be hard to get – but if you can find a counsellor or therapist, this will provide you with a safe space to work through your feelings and thoughts without judgment. Check out your local resources on the NHS website.