Loneliness combined with cold weather could prove “lethal” for thousands this winter, England’s top nurse has warned.
She said the issue can have a major impact on already stretched NHS services, especially over the winter months when cold weather poses a threat to many vulnerable groups.
Evidence shows that being alone and feeling isolated increases the risk of premature death by around a third and is as damaging to health as not exercising.
One in three people who report loneliness have long-term health conditions, which make them more vulnerable to the effects of cold weather.
Heart attacks increase almost immediately after a cold weather snap and account for 40% of excess winter deaths. Hospitals also see a rise in the admission of stroke patients five days after the cold weather begins, while admissions for respiratory problems go up 12 days after the temperature drops.
Three quarters of GPs say they see up to five people a day who have come in mainly because they are lonely.
The number of hospital admissions is also linked to colder weather circulating viral infections, including flu. Older people who may be frail, or who have existing health conditions, are particularly at risk. Half of people aged 75 and over live alone, around two million people, and many say they go days or even weeks with no social interaction at all.
Research also suggests lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia and are more prone to depression, whilst a third of people with dementia said they had lost contact with friends.
While we usually associate loneliness with old age, people of all ages can be affected. For example, a third of new mums claim to be lonely and eight out of 10 carers have felt lonely or isolated looking after loved ones.
Prof Cummings said: “Loneliness has a devastating and life-threatening impact on people of all ages. For vulnerable groups, social isolation combined with the health dangers of colder weather, is a lethal combination.
“NHS staff see firsthand the consequences of loneliness, from dealing with life-threatening and serious illness to offering a lifeline to those to simply wanting a see a friendly face.
“We can all take steps to alleviate loneliness by looking out for family, friends and neighbours. These simple acts of companionship could be life-saving.”
Her plea comes as the NHS calls on people to offer simple acts of companionship as part of its ‘Stay Well This Winter’ campaign to promote good health and protect vulnerable people over the winter months.
Independent research for the campaign shows 56% of people aged 18 to 74 would like to visit their elderly relatives, friends or neighbours more often, with 42% claiming it will be part of their New Year’s resolutions.
The poll also found 41% of people aged 70 to 80 feel that it’s helpful to have someone to help them with everyday activities, to stay well over the winter months, such as help with getting the weekly supermarket shop done (56%), help with picking up prescription medicines (48%) and help with getting to the pharmacist or doctor (43%).
A recent campaign from the Jo Cox Foundation drew attention to the plight of millions of lonely people in the UK, ahead of its Commission on Loneliness report.
Seema Kennedy MP and Rachel Reeves MP, co-chairs of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission, said: “The evidence of the impact of loneliness on people’s health and wellbeing is now overwhelming and we are delighted that NHS England are today supporting the need for all of us to look at what we can do to minimise it.
“Loneliness is no longer just a personal misfortune but has grown into a social epidemic. If we can tackle it effectively we can make Britain not just a happier but also a healthier country in which to live.”