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Loneliness and involuntary social isolation

Loneliness is a subjective, negative feeling experienced where there is a discrepancy between the amount and quality of social contacts one has, and the amount and quality one would like to have. It is related to, but distinct from, social isolation which is an objective state where there is an absence of social contacts and social connectedness.[1]

Emerging evidence indicates that loneliness is associated with poor health and well-being outcomes including hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, depression and mortality.  Research also suggests that loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by 30%.[2] 

Living alone has been found to be a risk factor associated with loneliness and involuntary social isolation, as well as multiple falls, functional impairment, poor diet, smoking, and three self-reported chronic conditions; arthritis and/or rheumatism, glaucoma, and cataracts.  Loneliness is caused by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors.  While loneliness can occur at any age, it can be exacerbated by major life events that typically correspond with ageing such as bereavement, loss of mobility and declining physical health.

Those who live alone are most likely to experience loneliness.  The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) has found that the percentage of people who feel lonely ‘some of the time’ or ‘often’ increases among those aged 60 and over.  23% of participants between 60 and 69 years of age said they sometimes felt lonely and 6% said they often felt lonely. When those over 80 years of age were asked the same question 29% of people reported feeling lonely some of the time and 17% often felt lonely.  However, it is important to recognise loneliness can affect people of all ages and a recent national survey suggests 16-24 year olds experience loneliness more often and more intensely than any other age group. [3]

2021 Census data show that almost one third of Herefordshire households were made up of one person living alone (which amounts to 25,400 single-person households)– half of whom were aged over 65.

The 2023 Herefordshire Community Wellbeing Survey found that 18% of adults say they felt lonely 'some of the time' or 'often / always'.  While the proportion who sometimes feel lonely was similar to 2021 (12% vs 13%), the proportion who felt lonely often or always fell from 10% in 2021 to 6% in 2023. 

The proportion of adults who feel lonely often or always increases among people who have no formal qualifications (11%), those who are living with a disability (10%), mature Independents (14%) and people with low mental wellbeing levels (20%).

The survey also found that high levels of anxiety are significantly more likely among people who feel lonely often or sometimes (45% compared to 24% of all adults).

Residents were also asked how often they are in contact with family, friends or neighbours. Six in ten (59%) said they are in contact most days and almost three in ten (28%) are in contact 2-3 times per week; the latter seeing a notable increase since 2021. People are in contact more frequently than in 2021, with a significant decline in those saying they are in contact once a month or less (4% down from 9% in 2021), which is likely as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic at the time of the 2021 survey.

[1] Hidden Citizens: how can we identify the most lonely older adults?, Campaign to end loneliness, April 2015.

[2] ‘Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review’, J. Holt-Lunstad, T.B. Smith, M. Baker, T. Harris, D. Stephenson, Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 10, No.2 (March 2015), 227-237.

[3] '16-24 year olds are the loneliest age group according to new BBC Radio 4 survey', BBC Media Centre, 1 October 2018.