Loneliness: the tragically silent killer which is so easy to combat


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Dawn Ball is 89, partially sighted and knows the dangers that loneliness and isolation can bring. After she suffered a bad fall two years ago, she asked a charity to send someone to read to her.

Happily for Mrs Ball, her story is now different from that of the one million people aged over 65 who say they are often or always lonely. Half of all older people (about five million) say the television is their main company.

Campaigners warned yesterday that loneliness is as big a killer as smoking, obesity and alcohol, as they held the first major summit on the issue.

Research shows a clear link between social interaction and increased longevity. A study of 148 research projects covering nearly 310,000 people found a 50 per cent increase in the survival rates of people with strong social networks.

Some charities like the WRVS provide companionship to the elderly, but the fact remains that some 17 per cent of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11 per cent less than once a month. Mrs Ball, a former ice skater who toured Europe and America in the 1940s, before going on to work in a bank, enjoys the company of WRVS volunteer Simon Holland-Brown, 33, who visits her once a week.

As well as reading to Mrs Ball, Mr Holland-Brown also helps her with jobs in her flat, balances her chequebook and sorts through her mail. Mrs Ball said: "When my doorbell went wrong, they said I would need to get an electrician, but Simon just twiddled with it and now it is working fine. He always reads me the write-ups from the theatre and helps me order audiobooks through the post. I have not got many local friends. I have no relatives in England at all. I have a distant cousin in Australia, but that's all. I think a lot of my friends would have benefited from this sort of support. It is easy for people to become isolated."

Local councils will receive guidance on how to measure the levels of loneliness and people at risk of loneliness in their area and will be urged to identify how they can help reduce levels of isolation. Care Services Minister Paul Burstow described it as the "great unspoken public health issue".

"If we do nothing these are people who are going to turn up in our accident and emergency departments and care homes at great cost to society and loss to the individuals concerned. We all have elderly neighbours or relatives who live on their own. Lack of day-to-day contact can have a huge impact on their health," he said.

"Research has shown that loneliness can be as harmful to your health as alcohol and tobacco, but we also know that people who have day-to-day contact live longer and healthier lives. The Government is working with the Campaign to End Loneliness to raise awareness about just how important even a simple phone call or visit can be to someone's health."

Older people who are lonely are more likely to suffer from depression and Alzheimer's, according to Paul Cann, of Age UK Oxfordshire.

Mr Holland-Brown, who sells pharmaceuticals to care homes, says he gets a lot out of his visits.

"I work for myself, so I can do some volunteering that fits around my day. I searched online for a befriending service that would let me volunteer out of normal hours and that's how I was put in touch with Dawn," he said.

For Mrs Ball, it's the human interaction the weekly visits give her that she appreciates most: "It's just having a chum. It is lovely to have someone popping in for a chat. We try to get rid of the chores as quickly as possible so we can have a natter."