Health & Wellness · LIFE December 16th, 2017

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Loneliness is a health issue—especially at this time of year

Health Tips from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

Loneliness
Adobe Stock Studies show people suffering from loneliness are at higher risk of developing mental and physical health issues.

As we head into the holiday season, when some of us will be bouncing from party to party, balancing family visits and time with friends, I can’t help but think of some of the isolated members of our community.

I’ve seen some research lately and heard conversations about the negative affect loneliness might have on overall health.

I spoke to Dr. Purti Papneja, a physician on the Sunnybrook Academic Family Health Team, to get a better understanding of this issue.

Dr. Papneja says she has no doubt that loneliness is a health issue.

“Studies show that people suffering from loneliness are at higher risk of developing various mental and physical health issues,” she said. “Especially in older population, there is increased risk of developing depression, cognitive impairment and sometimes even cardiovascular disease. However, causal links and mechanisms are difficult to demonstrate, and further research is needed.”

Several risk factors increase chances of person experiencing loneliness such as a non-married status, older age, poor income, lower educational level, living alone, low quality of social relationships, poor self-reported health, and poor functional status.

“In my office practice, I often see patients from various age groups who are isolated. Certainly, isolation is a major issue for most of my patients who are home-bound due to physical or mental health issues,” Dr. Papneja said. “Treatment often involves engaging with the patient and their families and exploring together practical ways to alleviate their loneliness.”

Dr. Papneja suggests various strategies, depending on the patient’s age and situation:

• Adopting a pet

• Volunteering in their community such as hospitals or community centres

• Online social networking for various interest groups such as meetup group

• Pick up a new hobby or sign up for a class where they may meet people with similar interest. If they are not sure, they can start with a drop-in class first.

• Join local community center where they have access to gym and other activities

• Connecting with their religious or spiritual leader and community

• Sometimes, referral is made to community outreach programs where volunteers may come to visit a homebound patient

As a community, there are also some things we can do to help combat this issue.

“We really have to understand the risk factors, then design interventions that target those populations,” Dr. Papneja said. “Some examples includes making our community centres and libraries easily accessible for vulnerable populations, providing lower-cost programs that encourage social networking, providing free transportation for elderly who have difficulty navigating public transit system or providing free access on certain days for lower income individuals/families to local attractions and programs in the city.”

This holiday season, I’ll try to reach out to someone who may be isolated or lonely. Can you do the same? Let’s take an extra moment to meet up with an isolated neighbour; plan to visit an elderly relative who may not get many visitors; include someone in a holiday dinner who otherwise not get an invite; or offer a drive to someone who may otherwise not get out often.