Experts have warned that prolonged loneliness has adverse health effects akin to long-term illness like heart attacks, hypertension, and depression.
According to Helen Stokes-Lampard, a general practitioner and chairperson of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), some patients who exhibit symptoms of some of these illnesses are actually “just lonely”.
Stokes-Lampard said lonely people are more likely to develop heart disease and dementia.
“GPs see patients, many of whom are widowed, who have multiple health problems like diabetes, hypertension and depression, but often their main problem isn’t medical, they’re lonely,” she said.
“Social isolation and loneliness are akin to a chronic long-term condition in terms of the impact they have on our patients’ health and wellbeing.
“Lonely people also have a 50% higher risk of dying early compared with those who enjoy a good social network.”
Speaking at the RCGP’s annual primary care conference in Liverpool, Stokes-Lampard called on all general practitioners to spend more time with their patients particularly the old and widowed, discussing their weight, exercise, and medication with them.
“The guidelines say we should be talking to them about their weight, exercise and prescribing more medication – but really what these patients need is someone to listen to them and to find purpose in life,” she said.
“Loneliness and social isolation are not the exclusive preserve of the elderly.
“They are not something that can be treated with pharmaceuticals or that can be referred for hospital treatment. But they must be addressed if we are to be patient-centred in our approach.
“Research has shown that lonely people consult their GP more often, and in many cases their GP was the professional they would come into contact with most frequently.
“If nothing is done, loneliness will, inevitably, take its toll on the entire healthcare system.”