Loneliness ‘as bad for your health as smoking’ – here’s how to spot the signs

Learn how to spot the signs of loneliness and take action to help yourself and others.

The effects of loneliness are ‘similar to those caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day’, a new health report claims.

US surgeon general Dr Vivek Murthy has urged public health officials to treat loneliness and social isolation with the same urgency as tackling smoking, obesity and drug and alcohol misuse.

He urged health officials and the population at large to take the issue seriously in an advisory on loneliness and isolation released on Tuesday.

In his report “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation”, Dr Murthy says around half of American adults report experiencing loneliness, and it’s something that affects young and old.

Older black lady looking out of a window and feeling lonelyCredit: Shutterstock/Rocketclips Inc
People can feel reluctant to talk about their loneliness

“Right now, millions of people are telling us through their stories and statistics that their tank is running on empty when it comes to social connection,” he says. “So bottom line is this has to be a public health priority that we consider on par with tobacco, with substance use disorders, with obesity and other issues that we know profoundly impact people’s lives.”

Loneliness is a global mental health issue that can affect anyone, anywhere, and at any age. It isn’t something we should shy away from or feel embarrassed about, says Caroline Abrahams, director of the charity Age UK.

“Loneliness is a growing risk as we get older, and nearly a million older people across the UK say they often feel lonely,” she explains.

“Issues such as bereavement, ill health and long-term health conditions make it harder for older people to stay connected. It’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of and we need to keep dismantling the stigma that attaches to it, so those affected have the confidence to reach out and seek help.”


Why we need social connection

Feeling connected is a normal part of the human experience, Dr Murthy notes in his advisory, and in many ways, loneliness is similar to experiencing hunger or thirst. “It’s a signal our body sends us when we’re lacking something that we need for survival,” he says.

“Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling – it harms both individual and societal health,” he adds. “It’s associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity.”

That’s why urgent action is needed, he argues. And it starts with strengthening our connections and relationships – a “source of healing hidden in plain sight”, according to Dr Murthy, who recommends making time to share a meal, have a phone chat with a friend, listen without distraction and to express ourselves authentically.

Older man looking distractedly out of the windowCredit: Shutterstock/Ground Picture
Feeling disconnected from others can be a sign of loneliness

Spotting the signs of loneliness in a loved one or yourself

Loneliness can impact you gradually, so it could well be something you don’t immediately pick up on. However, Belinda Sidhu, a therapist from TherapyFinders and the Be Well Consultancy, says there are several tell-tale signs.

“Our physical and mental health is connected, so when you’re experiencing loneliness, you might find you get ill more often and seem to catch every bug that’s going around,” she explains.

“Feeling lonely can also lead to depressive symptoms such as changes in your sleep and appetite.”

Sidhu suggests looking out for:

  • Changes in sleep patterns, such as sleeping more or less than usual.
  • Changes in eating patterns, such as eating more or less than you typically would.
  • A need to fill the void left by loneliness, such as buying seemingly unnecessary items.
  • Socially isolating yourself or noticing this behaviour in others. “This can manifest in terms of people declining social invites and there can also be a change in how they communicate,” explains Sidhu. “For example, perhaps you are used to speaking with a friend every week but you don’t hear from them for weeks or months at a time now.”

How to help someone experiencing loneliness

If you’re feeling lonely or recognise that someone else is, Abrahams suggests one of the best places to start is to try and open up and share what’s going on. Having a conversation about your mental health isn’t always easy, but there are people who can help, she says.

“Whether you chat with a friend, relative, neighbour, carer, your GP or Age UK, they can help you understand what you’re experiencing and enable you to work out the steps you can take to feel better.”

Spending time with others helps to maintain social connections, and can even be a good way to learn a new skill or revisit an old hobby, she adds. “Local branches of Age UK run a variety of different classes and activities, including walking football groups, coffee mornings, cooking and dance classes and much more, as well as some services organised for specific groups of older people, such as LGBT+ social groups and chair-based exercise sessions for people with reduced mobility.”

You can find out more about Age UK’s telephone and in-person friendship services by contacting Age UK’s freephone advice line on 0800 169 6565 (8am-7pm), or by visiting www.ageuk.org.uk.

Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her


Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time. She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, Doctors.net.uk and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

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