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Rita Watson MPH


Loneliness Cited as Public Health Threat

Unlike solitude, which is beneficial, researcher details loneliness concerns.

Courtesy of Bill Atkinson, 2017, Conrad Glacier in 1978, British Columbia's Vowell peak.
Source: Courtesy of Bill Atkinson, 2017, Conrad Glacier in 1978, British Columbia's Vowell peak.

When embraced and cultivated, solitude is beneficial. But for many people, solitude comes too close to the fear of being alone, or lonely. A serious concern among the elderly, loneliness was called a public health threat at an American Psychological Association presentation on August 5, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Interventions can be complex and challenging and a major concern is premature death.

From the work of Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, we learned that “an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.”

In April, Dr. Holt-Lunstad’s “Testimony before the U.S. Senate Aging Committee” cited “evidence that isolation (or social disconnection) is increasing.” She explained that this increase is due to the:

  • Decline of social networks since 1985
  • Lack of diversity in social networks
  • Decrease in household size
  • Increase by ten percent in those living alone

As the population ages, marriage rates decline, and fewer couples are having children, the effect on public health is anticipated to increase. She noted that “Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’” Senate testimony.

Dr. Holt-Lunstad expressed the challenges faced by many service organizations that are devoted to helping the elderly, what can be done about it?

One of the comprehensive reviews conducted by Christopher Masi, et al (2013), stated:

"Qualitative reviews have identified four primary intervention strategies: 1) improving social skills, 2) enhancing social support, 3) increasing opportunities for social contact, and 4) addressing maladaptive social cognition."

Mindfulness and other social isolation interventions

Clare Gardiner Ph.D., University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK, has addressed interventions in Health and Social Care in the Community:

“Most interventions were complex and many relied on more than one mechanism for reducing social isolation and loneliness; therefore, it was often unclear which specific aspects of an intervention contributed most strongly to its success.”

Gardiner et al (2016) found that interventions which utilized "therapeutic approaches delivered by trained therapists or health professionals" were beneficial and reduced loneliness. Categories having the most robust evaluation to date included humor therapy, mindfulness and stress reduction, reminiscence group therapy, as well as cognitive and social support interventions.

These had positive outcomes "including social support, happiness and life satisfaction. A common feature of these interventions was that they all involved facilitated group-based activities."

The alone of solitude is not lonely, it is beneficial

Although solitude most often takes place during alone time, the silence of solitude is a way to tune into your positive self and be grateful. It is not a new or unique theory. Those who practice mindfulness or meditation have an advantage in the world of solitude because in silence they can thrive and achieve a certain peace of mind. Some advantages include:

  • Expressing gratitude for the present.
  • Using silence to think about challenges and visualizing solutions.
  • Thinking of positive past events and bringing these to a reminisce group. Overcoming the Fear of Solitude

Another method that is becoming more popular in the United States is memoir writing. Some 14 years ago Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson at the University of Minnesota pointed out the emergence of the memoir as a distinct field of study. Researchers have also pointed to the value of memoir writing as therapy for individuals. Memoir Writing Bridges Past and Present.

Although people afraid of silence and solitude might benefit from learning about some of the positive aspects of being alone, it is a learned skill. One of Dr. Holt-Lunstad's suggestions for tackling this public heath threat is getting an early start, for example, emphasizing social skills training for children in schools.

Copyright 2017 Rita Watson


Gardiner, C. (2016) "Interventions to reduce social isolation and loneliness among older people: an integrative review" Health and Social Care in the Community,

Masi, C.M. (2013) "A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness," Personality and Social Psychology Review.


About the Author

Rita Watson, MPH, is an associate fellow at Yale's Ezra Stiles College, a former columnist for The Providence Journal, and the author of Italian Kisses: Rose-Colored Words and Love from the Old Country.