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New survey links loneliness to stress and ill health

Almost 100.000 Danish adults aged 30-59 are lonely, corresponding to 4%. However, if you take a closer look at the group, you will learn that loneliness is far more common among singles and people who have failed to find foothold in the labor market, and that loneliness is often accompanied by failure to thrive and stress. This is according to a new survey conducted on the initiative of the Mary Foundation in order to highlight loneliness among adults and to target the efforts on preventing and relieving loneliness. The Survey is conducted by Public Health and Quality Improvement, Central Denmark Region.

Recent research shows that long term loneliness is a serious problem which decreases the quality of life for many people, and that the risk of health problems, such as hypertension, cardio-vascular diseases and depression is associated with loneliness. Knowledge on the prevalence of loneliness among adults is, however, still limited. The same goes for research on why some people are especially vulnerable to loneliness.

In order to learn more about loneliness the Mary Foundation and Associate Professor Mathias Lasgaard launched a survey earlier this year. Based on the Danish National Health Profile, the survey aimed to take a closer look at the adult Danes who experience long term and lasting loneliness. The results show that factors such as having a partner or a job seem to relieve and counteract loneliness.

“The survey indicates that the community we are part of at our work is instrumental in creating a positive identity which is decisive to our feeling of loneliness. The length of our education doesn’t seem to affect feelings of loneliness, but an active work life and a partner are crucial factors. One can easily feel disconnected and isolated from society if you sit at home while everybody else is busy getting to work, fetching or bringing their children or being with their partner” says Associate Professor Mathias Lasgaard from Public Health and Quality Improvement, Central Denmark Region.

The survey points to the direction that loneliness and self-rated ill health are interlinked – a considerably higher proportion of the people experiencing loneliness (46% vs 12% in the non-lonely group) estimated their health as bad, and 78% experience a high level of stress vs 24% of the non-lonely group. An overrepresentation of people with mental disorder was furthermore noted among the lonely group (38% vs 8 % of the non-lonely group).

“The connection between loneliness and ill health is, among other things, caused by the fact that many lonely people experience a high level of stress. To be lonely is very stressful, and many of the lonely people experience other burdens or constraints on top of their loneliness – often related to their financial, family or employment situation”, Mathias Lasgaard says.

The Mary Foundation has since 2011 worked to prevent and relieve loneliness as one of the Foundation’s three action areas, and one of the lessons learnt so far is that loneliness has been a neglected area in terms of research – especially research on loneliness among adults at midlife.

“When we embarked on the loneliness area, it quickly became clear to us that evidence-based research on the area was scarce. We almost had to begin from scratch compared to our two other action areas which are Bullying and well-being and Domestic violence. So, we had to start by learning more about loneliness, and the new survey is yet another step in the right direction”, says Helle Østergaard who is director of the Mary Foundation.

The survey is the first of its kind and is based on the well-known UCLA scale which was included in the 2013 National Health Profile “How are you?” conducted by Central Denmark Region. 16.000 adults aged 30-59 chose to fill in the questionnaire, and the results are considered to be representative of the whole country.

Background

The Mary Foundation launched Loneliness as its third action area in November 2011. Since then, the Mary Foundation has highlighted the area by initiating surveys and collecting knowledge and data. The Foundation has moreover established collaboration with the Danish voluntary social organization Ventilen (Friend2one) on project Netwerk. This autumn, the Mary Foundation embarked on a new project Værket together with Red Cross Denmark.

Netwerk targets young people and teachers at youth education programmes, such as secondary schools. Netwerk is designed to prevent and relieve loneliness among students. The method is based on a development project consisting of activities such as buddy groups and class discussions as well as education on communities, classroom culture and feelings of loneliness. All the participating teachers are trained in seeing early signs of loneliness and in contacting the quiet students. Netwerk is a collaborative effort between Ventilen (Friend2one) and the Mary Foundation. The Lauritzen Foundation is the project’s financial partner.

Værket is aimed at adults who experience loneliness and who wish to strengthen their network. The aim of Værket is twofold: to relieve and prevent loneliness by setting up social meetings and to strengthen the lonely person’s ability to maintain and establish new relations. The concept will be tested and evaluated in seven local units of the Red Cross. The project will hopefully be rolled-out on a wider scale in 2015. Værket is a collaborative effort between the Danish Red Cross and the Mary Foundation.

In February 2014, the EGV Foundation (Danish foundation working to improve social inclusion of older adults) and the Mary Foundation launched the report “Midlife loneliness – life stories, experiences and patterns”. In the report 20 informants aged 27−53 describe how they experience loneliness and many of them give reasons for why they think the loneliness occurred and why it took hold. The report indicates that certain patterns, such as a dysfunctional family environment and bullying can predispose loneliness later in life and that the taboo associated with loneliness makes it harder to cope with.

The Mary Foundation has identified a panel of experts for each of the three action areas, and Loneliness is one of them. The experts are involved in the development of the projects and surveys and contribute to the Foundation’s work on each specific area with knowledge and experience. The following persons constitute the expert panel on Loneliness:

Professor and PhD John T. Cacioppo, The University of Chicago

PhD, Associate Professor Mathias Lasgaard, Department of Psychology, University of Southern Denmark and Central Denmark Region

PhD, Associate Professor Rikke Lund, The Institute of People's Science, Copenhagen University

PhD, Associate Professor  Jens Christian Nielsen, Danish School of Education (DPU), Aarhus University 

PhD, director Christine E. Swane, Ensomme Gamles Værn (Danish Welfare League for Lonely Old People)

Head of Office Lise Stidsen Vandahl, The Ministry of Children, Gender Equality, Integration and Social Affairs