Britain faces a “Major Public Health Challenge” caused by the impact of long-term loneliness on elderly people, two charities have warned.
Linked to dementia, depression and high blood pressure, chronic loneliness threatens the health of one in 10 older people.
With numbers set to surge 50 per cent to 1.5 million by 2028, AgeUK and the Campaign to End Loneliness say health professionals and local authorities must take urgent action.
Caroline Abrahams, director of AgeUK, said: “Loneliness is widespread among older people, leaving millions facing the ups and downs of later life largely alone.
“As the numbers of old people in our society increases, the problem is set to get worse unless we do more to help older people to avoid and overcome it.
“Mounting evidence shows loneliness has a serious impact on our mental and physical health – which in turn can lead to greater reliance on health and social care services – making it an issue we can ill afford to ignore.”
Titled “Promising approaches to reducing loneliness and isolation in later life”, the report details the impact of chronic loneliness – feeling lonely all or most of the time – can have on the health of older people.
The research uncovered that one in four (2.9 million) Britons aged 65 and over feel they have no one to go to for help and support. As well as serious implications for mental health, it found that chronic loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, increasing the risk of dementia, high blood pressure and depression.
The report claims that health service funders and commissioners are suffering from a “knowledge gap” as they struggle to meet the challenge of chronic loneliness.
Highlighting figures showing that in 2014 around five million 65-year-olds had never used the internet, the study found that older people have difficulty accessing public transport services due to local transport cuts and high taxi prices.
The report suggests a framework of solutions aimed at improving access to technology and transport. And after finding that having friends and family nearby is important to older people than to younger generations, the report sets out strategies aimed at helping the elderly to be better socially connected.
Laura Alcock-Ferguson, director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, said: “Although facing tough budget choices local authorities want to know what can be done to tackle loneliness.
“We are offering this framework to those 51 per cent [of councils] who have promised to tackle the issue in their health and wellbeing board strategies.
With this they can put into place a comprehensive network of community to prevent and alleviate isolation and loneliness.