Loneliness: a global challenge

International experts, including researchers from the University of Auckland, have published a letter in The Lancet medical journal calling for a unified approach to address the global challenge of loneliness.

The experts, from universities, research and public health organisations around the world, have been working together in response to growing concerns about the rates and consequences of loneliness.

Professor Vanessa Burholt, from the School of Nursing in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Auckland, explains 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.

“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,” she says.

“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.”  

...the reality is that some people with lots of friends can still feel lonely and those who live alone may not.

Professor Vanessa Burholt School of Nursing, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences

The signatories include experts from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland; Columbia University; George Mason University; University of Auckland; Swansea University; Ulster University; St James’s Hospital; University of Chicago; Trinity College Dublin; Boston College; University of California; Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; and Brunel University London.

The letter is based on discussions of international researchers at a meeting hosted in Belfast by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland. This has led to the establishment of an International Loneliness and Social Isolation Research Network.

While demographic shifts suggest that the number of people experiencing loneliness will increase, experts say that it is important to recognise that most older adults are not chronically lonely and that young adults are also affected.

Experts say 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 this area.

The expert group added that charities, community sectors, and governments, who are delivering programmes often have an inadequate evidence to plan from and need a more coherent message from research, and a stronger evidence base.

And while more research is needed to find out the full consequences of loneliness, the existing evidence shows association with poor health and wellbeing, non-communicable diseases, and depression.

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Nicola Shepheard | Media adviser
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