Loneliness is the worst enemy of health and longevity

This week, to a large and gripped audience, Professor Sarah Harper from the Oxford Institute of Ageing had just explained what societies of the future would look like. Then someone in the audience stood up and quoted gerontologist Aubrey de Grey: "The person who lives to be 1,000 has already been born."

To think of our children living into their 100s is, it seems, at the vanilla end of the ageing debate now. Conceivably, you could retire in your sixties, become transformed by stem cell regeneration or similar, go back to work at 100, work for another 800 years, and still have a really long retirement.

Whatever, there are going to be a lot more old people around soon, and many things urgently need looking at again. If we were to design a pension system today to match Bismarck's – in terms of the age that it starts set against median life expectancy – it would kick in at 103.

But if this strikes fear into your heart, it might be because, as the minister for care services, Paul Burstow, told me at another conference later in the week: "We equate old age and frailty as if they are automatically synonymous. We equate old age and senility as if they are automatically synonymous. This is something we've got to stop doing."

The second conference was not on ageing but loneliness. The figures are extraordinary: a meta-analysis undertaken in America, covering 309,000 people, found problematic solitude deleterious to health in a way that we've previously only managed to pin on life-long smoking. It's worse for you than obesity.

According to the analysis, if you want to scotch the idea of old age as a state of dependency, you have to start thinking not in terms of how long you can keep yourself alive but of how long you can keep yourself healthy. And if you want to keep yourself healthy, the answer, for a change, is not about willpower, exercise, keeping active and looking after yourself. The answer is other people. So you'd better start making some friends.

(There's a tension, isn't there, with the cognitive behavioural model, in which wellbeing comes from addressing your own thought processes, rather than worrying about other people. It's true that, to avoid loneliness, you have to look on the bright side – but it turns out the main benefit of positive thinking is that it makes other people want to hang out with you.)

Before this gets written into any policy documents, it is worth bearing in mind that loneliness is a subjective state. Tests have been developed that attempt to systematise its measurement – the De Jong-Gierveld "Rasch-type loneliness scale" is the most popular – but academics say this is fine for recognising the critically lonely, it's fine for identifying the non-lonely, but it's not great for the incipiently lonely. Plus, there is a crucial difference between "emotional loneliness", where you yearn for a specific person, and "social loneliness", where you simply don't have enough human contact.


Social loneliness is quite straightforward to deal with: people just need to spend more time together – although it doesn't need to be anything as antiseptic as a scheduled quarter-hour visit from a professional.

Indeed, in many of the new programmes going on around the country, you might struggle to immediately determine which was the volunteer and which the beneficiary. David McCullough, chief executive of the WRVS (it used to be the Women's Royal Volunteer Service but is attempting an acronymed rebranding to attract men), points out that the relationship is quite fluid. It's not younger people looking after older people; most of the WRVS's 40,000 volunteers are over 60. People move from one group to the other, so that an alcoholic might recover and start volunteering, or someone supporting widows and widowers might also be bereaved.

This is one area – in fact, the only area I've encountered – where a big society seems plausible. If the problem is that we lead atomised lives, with 8 million people living alone, 3.6 million of them widowed, that shouldn't be insurmountable in the internet age.

Emotional loneliness looks a little more intractable, but Laura Ferguson of the Campaign to End Loneliness is resolute that everything's possible. "It's not just about local authorities, it's about hearing the voices of older people, and galvanising everybody into action," she says.

It's like learning a new word: once you know the impact of loneliness on society, you see people everywhere analysing it, trying to crack it.

I just read this paper on the effects of playing Wii on loneliness in the elderly. Volunteers were split into two categories, and some played Wii bowls while others just watched TV. The video game really works, apparently – and the findings were published in the British Psychological Society research digest under the headline "Need a Wii?".

Just as an aside, if the whole world is going to live to be 1,000, this joke about everybody over 50 being incontinent is going to get really tired.

© Guardian News and Media 2012