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Introduction to loneliness and social isolation

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.” – Mother Teresa.

Loneliness is becoming a social and health issue

An ageing population and an increase in people living alone has seen social isolation and loneliness fast emerging as major issues facing modern society, particularly because of their adverse effect on health and well-being. UK officials are currently attempting to measure the extent of loneliness in Britain amid concerns that ‘the most isolated generation’ ever will overwhelm the National Health Service (Brady, 2013).

Research has shown that social isolation and loneliness are associated with a range of health issues, including increased mortality (Cacioppo, Hawkley, Norman, & Berntson, 2011), depression (Guitzmann, 2000), high blood pressure (Hawkley, Thisted, Masi, & Cacioppo, 2010), and dementia (Holwerda et al, 2012). A recent study found that social isolation was equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day and to drinking six units of alcohol a day (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010).

Brown, Woolf, and Smith (2010) used the NZGSS to show that social isolation and loneliness were negatively associated with well-being among New Zealand adults. NZGSS 2010 data show that adult New Zealanders who felt lonely all of the time in the last four weeks were less likely to be satisfied with their life overall (59 percent) than those who never felt lonely (91 percent).

The importance of addressing loneliness to improve people's well-being and health is increasingly being recognised in policy. Social isolation and loneliness are identified as targets for reduction by the Ministry of Health and District Health Boards in the Health of older people strategy. Social isolation is identified as a factor in the development of suicide behaviours in the New Zealand suicide prevention strategy 2006–2016. The New Zealand settlement strategy emphasises the importance of migrants connecting with their communities.

Social isolation and loneliness differ

While interrelated, social isolation and loneliness are different concepts, defined slightly differently across the literature. Social isolation objectively describes the absence of social contact ie contact with family or friends or community involvement. Loneliness is the difference between desired and achieved levels in the quality and quantity of social contact. Loneliness is about how individuals feel and is therefore measured subjectively. While both concepts are important to understand, the focus of this report is loneliness. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that subjective interpretations of social relationships are key to understanding the impact of social connections on well-being (Hughes, Waite, Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2008).

While social contact is vital, we all have different levels of need for social contact. Some people express loneliness even though they have regular contact with family and friends. This is perhaps because they consider that these relationships are not providing the emotional support that they need. Other people might have very limited contact with family and friends but are not lonely.

Policy interest in loneliness

Understanding the groups most affected by loneliness, and the social factors strongly associated with loneliness, will provide an evidence base for policy makers and service providers to potentially tackle loneliness through either targeted or indirect interventions.

Within western modern societies, loneliness is seen as a problem that is particularly associated with old age. As a result there is a good deal of policy interest in the social isolation or loneliness of older people. Much less attention has been given to examining variations in loneliness across age groups. We will address this by exploring patterns of loneliness across adults aged 15 years and older in New Zealand. We will look at not only the relationship between loneliness and a range of key factors, but also the relationship with these factors for each age group.

This report will examine whether young adults experience loneliness differently to those in midlife, or older people. If this is the case, then the appropriate response to designing interventions will be different for each.

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