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Strong Link Found Between Poor Health and Loneliness

Adults in England who report 'bad or very bad' health are more than three times as likely to report feeling lonely than those with 'good or very good health', said NHS England.

NHS England's Health Survey for England, 2021 part 2 investigated a variety of areas concerning the health of the nation. It aimed to estimate the proportion of people in England who had health conditions, and the prevalence of risk factors and behaviours associated with certain health conditions, and how prevalence varied within the population.

For the latest survey, 5880 adults aged 16 years and over were quizzed about their health (general health, diabetes, cholesterol, and hypertension), loneliness and wellbeing, physical activity, social care for older adults, and gambling.

When asked about loneliness, the survey included the Office for National Statistics' (ONS) direct measure of loneliness in the self-completion questionnaire. This asked participants, 'How often do you feel lonely?' Participants were asked to respond on a five-point scale with categories 'Never', 'Hardly ever', 'Occasionally', 'Some of the time', and 'Often or always'.

Loneliness Remains A Concern

More than 1 in 5 people in England (22%) reported feeling lonely at least some of the time. The survey uncovered that over four times as many adults (27%) never felt lonely, compared to the 6% who said they 'often or always' felt lonely, who thereby suffered with chronic loneliness.  

For all of those who self-reported that they felt lonely 'often or always', 1 in 10 lived alone, compared with 4% who lived with others. It was a similar ratio for women (10% versus 4%, respectively), as it was for men (11% versus vs 4%, respectively).

NHS England said that more than three quarters of adults (77%) reported 'good or very good' general health, with 6% reporting 'bad or very bad' general health.

With regards to loneliness and its association with poor health, NHS England said that 3 in 5 adults (62%) reporting bad or very bad health said they felt lonely at least some of the time compared to 1 in 5 (18%) with good or very good health, an NHS England spokesperson said. 

However, when comparing the general health of those who felt lonely 'often or always', seven times (28%) as many said they had 'bad or very bad' health as those who said they had 'very good or good' (4%) health.

Again, it was a similar ratio for women, with almost 1 in 3 (30%) saying that they had 'bad or very bad health' and felt lonely 'often or always' versus 4% with 'very good or good health'. For men it was a similar picture (25% versus 3%).

Exercise, Gambling, and Long-Standing Illness

In regards to age, younger people (16-34 years) were around 33% more likely than those aged 65 and over to report feeling lonely 'some of the time', with the older people surveyed three times less likely to report feeling lonely 'often or always', compared to their younger counterparts (2% versus 6%).

Commenting for Medscape News UK, Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, postulated there was reason to believe that official statistics tended to understate the prevalence of loneliness among those who are older. She said that "older men, in particular, can find it uncomfortable admitting they suffer from loneliness, having grown up at a time when it was less socially acceptable to talk about their feelings than it is today".

There was also variation across the English regions with feeling lonely 'some of the time', being most likely in the North East (20%), with people in the East Midlands least likely (12%) to say they felt this way. Those in Yorkshire and the Humber were most likely to 'never feel lonely' (33%), with Londoners (22%) least likely to agree with this.

Other findings from the survey included:

  • 70% of men and 59% of women met the 2011 aerobic guidelines for weekly physical activity of at least 150 minutes of moderate activity, 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or equivalent per week
  • 50% of adults reported having participated in some form of gambling activity, including the National Lottery and other lotteries, in the last 12 months
  • One in 10 adults (10%) reported having participated in online gambling, excluding the National Lottery and other lotteries, during the previous 12 months, with almost 1 in 5 of these adults being assessed as engaging in at-risk or problem gambling
  • 40% of adults had at least one longstanding illness or condition – those which affect the body or mind for 12 months or longer – and included a higher proportion of women (43%) than men (37%)

NHS England explained that because of COVID-19 pandemic precautions, for most of 2021 interviews were carried out by telephone rather than in person.

"As a result of these changes in data collection, findings from 2021 are not directly comparable with those from previous years," NHS England pointed out.