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‘The epidemic of loneliness.’ We’re learning just how dangerous social isolation is, especially for older men

When Pete* moved back to Bruce County in 2021, he was reeling from a breakup, the loss of his service industry job in Toronto, the realization that his drinking was out of control and a feeling of profound loneliness.

Since Toronto felt like a “ghost town,” he made the move to his hometown, partly to help his aging father. There, he started seeing a woman and they wound up getting engaged. “Sadly, she passed away just before Christmas,” said Pete. “So, when it comes to loneliness, I’m sort of back to square one.”

We’ve all had our lonely moments, but Pete said these episodes felt like a deeper level of loneliness and he became “super-depressed” for months, unable to go to work or, for that matter, do much of anything.

“She was the love of my life, and some people never get to experience that, so I’m really fortunate that we had that relationship,” he said. “But, gosh, you really miss it when it’s gone.”

Although it’s difficult to get hard and fast numbers to confirm that loneliness is on the rise, there’s certainly a perception that it is. And, perhaps most importantly, we’re starting to investigate the toll it takes on our health: The Office of the United States Surgeon General recently released an infographic that showed lack of social connection was as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“The report has been prompted by the epidemic of loneliness that’s occurring in the United States,” explained Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and director of health policy research at the National Institute of Aging. “I think it’s increasingly being seen as a public health issue and one that needs to be taken seriously.” Sinha said feelings of loneliness can lead to anxiety and/or depression.

Recent research suggests certain populations appear to be more vulnerable than others. “We know that we tend to see higher rates of loneliness and social isolation among men compared to women, who are far more likely to be able to create social connections with others,” said Sinha. “Often, men have smaller social circles and, if they rely on a female partner to forge those connections and end up alone, they’re more likely to be more socially isolated.”

Sinha warned that this type of loneliness can lead to an increased risk of suicidal ideation. The group most likely to successfully complete a suicide attempt is older men, who have the highest rates of “suicide completion” in our society.

Although many of us associate social isolation and loneliness with the elderly, that isn’t the full picture, says Raza Mirza, PhD, director for national partnerships and knowledge mobilization at HelpAge Canada and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Life Course and Aging.

“Many older adults are very well connected to each other. They take intentional actions to build out their social network and become really engaged,” said Mirza. “The most recent statistics are showing that the group between 50 and 64 actually report greater levels of loneliness than the group that’s between 65 and 79.” Mirza also notes that loneliness is an increasingly common issue in even younger people.

Was the pandemic a factor? Mirza said that the extent to which it may have impacted rates of loneliness isn’t clear, and people were already spending less time in social situations before COVID.

And it’s not always correct to associate spending time alone and loneliness. Being lonely and being alone aren’t one and the same.

“Loneliness is a really subjective thing and there are many definitions for it, but essentially what it means is that the quality in your relationships is lacking,” said Mirza.

This can happen to people at any age, of course, which is why Samir Sinha hopes that more medical practitioners will start screening patients for loneliness.

“There was a really neat study back in 2012 looking at factors that differentiated people age 75 and over who lived five years longer on average,” said Sinha. “Those who lived longer did three things: They didn’t smoke, they did regular physical exercise and, third, they had deep and meaningful social connections on a regular basis.”

Pete from Bruce County’s experience bears the wisdom of this out. After several months of depression, he started to climb out by going back to work, joining the town’s lawn bowling and curling leagues and even doing a little bartending for some special events held by the local Rotary Club — putting his old service industry skills to use.

“I’m a lot better than I was,” he said. “Having colleagues again certainly helps and so does just getting out of your head and hanging out with a bunch of dudes from all different walks of life at the curling rink.”

“As much as it’s a different kind of loneliness to lose someone, we also had this immense love for each other that kind of sustains me,” Pete added. “And I wouldn’t have had that otherwise.”


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