In this episode of Lifestyle Matters 

'When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives' – quoted from the Game of Thrones.

This week Dr Ferghal and I discuss social connections and its effects on our health.

A study between 2001-2009 in Australia demonstrated that 33% feel lonely from time to time. This was before the pandemic. Since then, slightly more than half the population has felt lonelier. It is quite astounding to know that loneliness is as important as a risk factor as smoking or obesity in adverse cardiac events.
But first we need identify the differences between loneliness and social isolation.

Loneliness: The subjective feeling of aloneness. This can occur either when one is socially isolated, or in a crowd.

Social isolation: Is when our social network has physically reduced but it may not be accompanied by the feeling of loneliness.

The threshold to loneliness varies from person to person. Some of the identifiable risk factors include:
• Personality types – Jung Personality Test
This is of the many well documented personality tests that can be useful for one to identify their four most common traits. Some prefer to spend more time alone rather than with others, whilst others prefer to be surrounded by many. Interestingly, if a person who prefers to be alone is placed in a large crowd they can feel 'lonely' if they struggle to adapt.
• Minority groups not familiar with their community due to language or cultural barriers e.g. migrants
• Discrimination – disabilities, LGBTQI, health issues e.g. eating disorders, mental health.
• Living alone
• Estranged from family / friends
• Single parent / carer
• Financial strains
• History of physical / sexual abuse
• Heavy social media (this study demonstrated an almost 20% increase in loneliness )

While we know the above risk factors increase the likelihood of developing loneliness, but everyone feels lonely from time to time, and this is not uncommon. The issue lies when the feelings of loneliness become persistent impacting our emotional, mental and physical well-being. We will discuss these issues in the next episode.

Author: Dr Saveena Nithiananthan
Savena is a General Practitioner, Medical Educator and member of the International Board of Lifestyle Medicine