New Zealand can be a lonely place. Causing concern that the so-called ‘loneliness crisis’ will hit this country hard.
Data from the June 2020 quarter showed that, during this time, 42 percent of New Zealanders felt lonely at least a little of the time in the previous four weeks, compared with 39 percent in the 2018 General Social Survey. This translates into significant rates of loneliness in New Zealand. This includes 21,700 people (0.7 percent) who felt lonely all of the time, 94,500 (3.0 percent) most of the time, and 374,000 (12 percent) some of the time. 18 percent of young adults felt lonely all, most, or some of the time, compared with 11 percent of older people.
The outcomes of Loneliness are many and varied.
- The effect of loneliness and isolation on mortality (death) is comparable to the impact of well-known risk factors such as obesity, and has a similar influence as cigarette smoking.
- Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease (heart disease that causes heart attacks) and stroke.
- Loneliness increases the risk of high blood pressure.
- Loneliness significantly increases the likelihood of mortality (death).
- Lonely individuals are also at higher risk of the onset of disability.
- Lonely individuals are more prone to depression.
- Loneliness and low social interaction are predictive of suicide in older age.
- Loneliness puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline.
- One study concludes lonely people have a 64% increased chance of having dementia.
- There is strong international evidence that Dementia is one of largest causes of loneliness for older people. The facts are:
- Most people with dementia live in the community.
- Most people with dementia it is not diagnosed until it is well established.
- Looking back most people with dementia had some clinical symptoms around 20 years before their dementia is diagnosed.
- Most people become aware of the progressive changes, they may be able to cover them up for a period of time (e.g. making a joke of forgetting the names of people they know well, putting notes around their house to remind them to turn off lights/heaters/stove, etc). The more a person becomes aware that they are ‘saying and/or doing things significantly different than previously’ they commonly withdraw from their normal activities due to shame and fear of embarrassing themselves and others. Their world becomes smaller.
- If the person experiencing these changes has a spouse/ partner that person generally begins withdrawing from their normal activities too as they fear the shame and embarrassment of what the person may say or do in social situations, and as the condition advances they fear what might go wrong if they leave the person alone for too long. Strong evidence shows spouses/partners, of people living at home with undiagnosed dementia, are some of the loneliest and most socially isolated people across the world.
- In New Zealand and some other countries once a person with dementia is diagnosed a range of supports are available to enable the person with dementia and their spouse /partner /family /whanau to ‘live well with dementia’.
Lonely individuals are more likely to:
- Visit their GP and have higher use of medication, which in turn can increase the risks of falls and associated injuries.
- Use accident and emergency services more often which may result in increased rates of hospitalisation and/or short-term inpatient rehabilitation care.
- Undergo earlier use of home-based health services or earlier entry into long-term residential care.
- In the last decade, medical professionals and researchers have investigated the impact of loneliness and social isolation on health, well-being, and mortality.
- The evidence is overwhelming: a lonely person is significantly more likely to suffer an early death than a non-lonely individual, ranging from 30% to 60% increased risk.
- Forecasts indicate the problem will be more critical, and more taxing on resources, than smoking or obesity.
- The ramifications of this impending ‘event’ have raised a number of questions:
- What key causative and/or contributing factors can be prevented / reduced / managed at different ages and stages of life to reduce the risk of individuals experiencing loneliness?
- Why has the natural human state of loneliness morphed into a global crisis?
- What specific factors are lowering our resistance to withstand this epidemic?
- What role will health professionals and caregivers play in stemming the tide?
- What other interventions have the capability of increasing resistance and resilience?