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'Epidemic' of loneliness more deadly than smoking, study finds

Last Updated Jan 18, 2018 at 6:30 pm EST

Researchers and health care providers are warning loneliness is turning into an epidemic with the very real potential of putting a significant drain on public health care dollars if not tackled immediately by local governments.

The warning comes as British Prime Minister Theresa May recently appointed a minister for loneliness in a drive to tackle social isolation, a problem endured by 9-million Brits.

In Canada, studies have shown one in five Canadians experience some degree of loneliness and social isolation.

Dr. Oren Amitay, a Toronto psychologist, says loneliness and social isolation is not only becoming an epidemic, but a significant cause of mental distress.

“Loneliness contributes to stress and stress contributes to everything, whether it’s a sense of depression, fatigue, anxiety,” Amitay said. “For a lot of people, it may not be the most conscious thought on their mind, but people are truly afraid of dying alone.”

A study by researchers at Brigham Young University in 2015 found the ill effects of loneliness are as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The study looked at more than three million participants and found increased social connection is linked to a 50 per cent reduced risk of premature death.

The 2016 Census found one-person households account for more than 28 per cent of all households. The number of couples with children have been falling steadily since 2001, now making up 26.5 per cent of all households.

Dipika Damerla, Ontario Minister of Seniors Affairs, said the Liberals recently invested $155-million to tackle social isolation among the elderly.

“I can tell you with confidence that the entire $155-million plan marries these two ideas which is that people want to live on their own as long as they can, but not at the cost of getting socially isolated,” she said.

As for what to do if chronic loneliness strikes, Dr. Amitay says its best for people to find a hobby or project that gives them purpose. Pets can also help seniors who may be isolated due to a lack of physical mobility.