(ORDO NEWS) — More people live today than ever before, and yet all over the world people still often feel lonely.
Even before the global pandemic hit, a large-scale meta-analysis showed that chronic or severe loneliness is common and unnoticed in many countries.
Past research in industrialized countries shows an increase in loneliness, but without historical data on the subject, it’s hard to tell how today’s numbers compare over time or geographic regions.
“It is generally accepted that about 1 in 12 people experience loneliness at a level that can lead to serious health problems, but the sources of this data are unclear and researchers have never established how widespread loneliness is globally,” says epidemiologist Melody Ding. from the University of Sydney.
“That’s why we were interested in doing this review.”
Ding and colleagues collected 57 observational studies of loneliness from 113 countries or territories between 2000 and 2019.
The authors hope to use the data as a pre-pandemic baseline to track feelings of loneliness in the future.
Since loneliness is associated with mental, emotional and physical well-being, the findings could help identify new public health issues that need to be addressed more effectively.
Global estimates of loneliness were available mainly for adolescents, and results across 77 countries suggest that this issue can range from 9.2 percent in Southeast Asia to 14.4 percent in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Unfortunately, data for adults were sufficient to allow a meta-analysis for the European region only.
In this corner of the world, the authors again found geographical differences. The Nordic countries had the lowest levels of loneliness, with only 2.9 percent of young adults experiencing this negative emotion and 2.7 percent of middle-aged adults feeling the same. Older people over 60 experienced loneliness more often – 5.3 percent.
Eastern European countries, by contrast, showed more signs of loneliness than anywhere else in Europe. Young adults in Eastern Europe reported feeling lonely at 7.5 percent and middle-aged adults at 9.6 percent. Older adults in this part of Europe were the loneliest of all, at 21.3 percent.
The data cannot tell why there is a lonelier population in general in Eastern Europe, but one of the studies included in the review suggests that this is due to poorer health, medical care and social support outcomes.
Welfare systems and social safety nets are commonly put forward as an explanation for the decline in loneliness, and the Nordic countries tend to do well in these areas. Further research is required to confirm the hypothesis.
“Understanding loneliness as a global health problem requires data from most countries – however, data are not available for most regions outside of Europe,” the authors write.
“Meanwhile, the lack of repeated measurements limited our conclusions about temporal trends.”
This means that we have no idea how these numbers compare to past decades. If loneliness is getting worse, it’s important that public health and policy experts are aware of it so they can take appropriate action.
Never before has this been as important as it is now. The World Health Organization has warned that social isolation measures that contain the dangerous SARS-CoV-2 virus are also likely to lead to increased levels of loneliness, depression, harmful use of alcohol and drugs, self-harm or suicidal behavior.
The current review could not find any low-income countries that provided nationally representative data on adult loneliness, due to resource constraints and competing priorities.
These serious data gaps blind us to a common and global problem that can affect mental and physical health at any age. Social isolation and loneliness are indeed associated with an increased risk of early death, on a scale equivalent to smoking cigarettes. However, it is not yet clear what mechanism drives this fatal relationship.
US Census data has shown that more young and middle-aged people are living alone today than in previous years. But a European survey shows that older people over 60 are most likely to suffer from feelings of intense loneliness.
Different results across countries suggest that age-specific patterns of loneliness may be context-specific, but more data is needed to be sure.
When our life literally depends on connecting with other people, it is surprising that more research on loneliness and isolation has not been done so far.
The global pandemic has forced us to pay attention like never before, and researchers like Ding are trying to make sense of the little information we have so we can make informed decisions about the future.
“A public health approach to loneliness means addressing the social and structural factors that influence lifelong risk of loneliness, including poverty, education, transportation, inequality and housing, and pursuing policies to address them,” writes the public health expert panel. Ireland and the UK in an editorial related to the new study.
“It is important to promote healthy social choice by facilitating communication with others in society, changing the work environment and expanding opportunities to build trust and social capital.”
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