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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: The loneliness epidemic

May 14, 2018 - 12:00 PM



Perhaps there’s nothing more sad than older folks feeling the isolation of loneliness. Unless, of course, it’s an even greater number of younger folks who are lonely. There’s an epidemic of loneliness, according to recent research, and increasingly it affects younger people more than ever…and increasingly it is a global problem.

Generally, we are conditioned to accept as undeniable fact that elderly people…those in their 70s or older…lead lonelier lives than the rest of us. But there is growing evidence that not only is this perception not true…it is younger people who most often share the burden of loneliness.

Specifically, men and women ages 18 to 23 - so-called Generation Z - recorded the highest score (not a good thing) in a recent nationwide survey of 20,000 adults by health insurer Cigna Corp. Researchers used the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Loneliness Scale…a 40-year-old tool considered the “Gold Standard” of measuring human loneliness.

The UCLA tool asks ten questions - things like; “How often do you feel unhappy doing so many things alone?” Responders answer 1=Never, 2=Rarely, 3=Sometimes, 4=Always, with the sum of responses plotted along a scale from 20 to 80, with 20 being average and scores of 43 or more signalling a very high level of loneliness.

The results - including data for Generation Z and beyond - seem sobering at the very least.

The average score of the 20,000 Americans - 44 - concerns social scientists. Canadians, according to researchers, closely mirror the U.S. responses, as do those living in the United Kingdom.

Specifically, Generation Z responders had a high score of 48.3, with Millennials - born between 1981 and 1996 - scoring 45.3. Baby Boomers scored 42.4, and the so-called Greatest Generation - those 72 and older - scored 38.6. Older folks are often plagued with more aches and pains, so perhaps it’s only right that they should be a little less lonely.

Generations, by the way, are amorphous things…with Baby Boomers - the U.S. Census Bureau’s only official generation - spanning 19 years versus 16 years for Millennials and Generation Z folks. But, I digress.

There is reason for concern about rising loneliness, especially when you consider other related research. Loneliness has significant health consequences, including increases in the chances of stroke, coronary heart disease and even pre-mature death. It is the equivalent, say researchers, of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Further, loneliness affects our immune systems. Studies by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a Brigham Young University psychologist, confirms the correlation between loneliness and poor health.

Isolation and loneliness are growing here in Canada, with the most recent census showing that 28.2 percent of adult Canadians live alone…the highest percentage ever. Some of this is because of our aging population, just like the United States. But what about isolation and loneliness among younger people?

I thought maybe the problem could be attributed to what seems a dependence on electronic devices and social media by younger people. But after some research, it seems there is conflicting data. Yes, a study by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge last year suggested a correlation between increases in depression and suicides among adolescents and how much time they spent on social media…but the jury is still out.

The most recent Cigna study did not find any cause-and-effect relationship. It’s not clear cut. It seems you can use social media and the amount of time on electronic devices passively…becoming more isolated…or proactively…and become more socially involved.

A lot of variables likely impact the degree to which we become isolated and lonely. Working, for example, is one of those variables. And the answers aren’t always obvious or simple. Isolation and loneliness can happen if you work too little…or too much.

There needs to be a lot more research…and a lot more sharing of information if we are to understand any cause-and-effect relationships. Ultimately, the answers mean a healthier society with people living longer…not shorter lives.

It’s sad that younger people are feeling more isolated and lonely. Honestly, I never felt isolated or lonely when I was younger. That can’t be a good thing…and we should all care enough to ask our government to make further research a priority. We need to know a lot more about how factors - lifestyle, work and more affect loneliness - and in turn, how loneliness affects our mental and physical health. Canada is a leader in healthcare…I hope we will take the lead in finding out why there is an epidemic of loneliness, as well.

Meanwhile, one thing seems certain to me…the more time we spend face-to-face with others…the less chance we have of becoming isolated and suffering from loneliness.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

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