International experts from around the world, including Ireland, have had a letter published in The Lancet medical journal, calling for a unified approach to addressing the global challenge of loneliness.
In response to the growing concerns about the rates and consequences of loneliness, experts based in universities, research and public health organisations across Ireland, USA, UK, New Zealand and the Netherlands, have been working together to help address the issue.
The signatories include experts from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, St James’s Hospital, and Ulster University. While demographic shifts suggest that the number of people experiencing loneliness will increase, experts say it is important to recognise that most older adults are not chronically lonely and that young adults are also affected.
The expert group stated that loneliness can be defined as a “subjective negative experience that results from inadequate meaningful connections”, and have called for a standardised approach to defining and measuring loneliness to help inform those developing policy and services in the area. The group added that charities, community sectors, and governments delivering programmes often have an inadequate evidence to plan from and need a more coherent message from research, and a stronger evidence base. While more research is needed to find out the full consequences of loneliness, the evidence shows association with poor health and wellbeing, non-communicable diseases, and depression.
While almost a third of Irish adults aged 50 and over report they are sometimes lonely when directly asked, just 7% say they are often lonely and the majority (63% ) say they feel lonely hardly ever or never (TILDA research ). Prof Roger O’Sullivan, from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland, said that in a time when as a society we have never had more opportunities to connect with people, there is a growing focus on loneliness and its association with poor health outcomes.
He said: “Our understanding of loneliness is still limited and is often stereotypical. While it is often confused with a lack of social engagement, the reality is that some people with lots of friends can still feel lonely and those who live alone may not. Although loneliness is a very personal experience, addressing loneliness is not simply a matter for individuals but is also an issue for public health and society as a whole. By building the evidence and pooling expertise, we can support governments and policymakers to make better informed decisions to address this challenge,” Prof O’Sullivan added.
Professor Brian Lawlor, a psychiatrist based at Trinity College Dublin, who has worked with older people who experience loneliness, added: "Our lack of awareness and our poor understanding of loneliness means that we are missing opportunities to improve older peoples’ lives. We need more evidence on what can help people when loneliness is impacting on their quality of life."