No matter how many times it has been said, it is an undeniable fact that the COVID-19 pandemic was one that spiralled out of control and brought about not only loss of loved ones, but also an increase in loneliness amongst other things. A recent analysis found that loneliness was widespread at a problematic level in many countries.
The analysis of evidence from 113 countries and territories during 2000-19 was published in 'The BMJ'.
The findings identified important data gaps, particularly in low and middle-income countries, and substantial geographical variation in loneliness, with northern European countries consistently showing lower levels compared with other regions.
Existing evidence showed that loneliness not only affected mental health and wellbeing, it was also linked to a range of physical health problems and early death.
A recent estimate by US researchers suggested that one-third of the population in industrialised countries experienced loneliness, and one in 12 people experienced loneliness at a level that can lead to serious health problems. But it was still unclear how widespread loneliness was on a global scale.
So, a team of Australian researchers led by the University of Sydney set out to summarise the prevalence of loneliness globally to help decision-makers gauge the scope and severity of the problem.
They trawled research databases and found 57 observational studies reporting national estimates of loneliness from 113 countries or territories during 2000-19.
Data were available for adolescents (12-17 years) in 77 countries or territories, young adults (18-29 years) in 30 countries, middle-aged adults (30-59 years) in 32 countries, and older adults (60 years or older) in 40 countries.
Data coverage was notably higher in high-income countries (particularly Europe) compared with low and middle-income countries.
Overall, 212 estimates for 106 countries from 24 studies were included in the meta-analysis. For adolescents, pooled prevalence of loneliness ranged from 9.2 per cent in South-East Asia to 14.4 per cent in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
For adults, meta-analysis was conducted for the European region only, and a consistent geographical pattern was found for all age groups.
For example, the lowest prevalence of loneliness was consistently seen in northern European countries (2.9 per cent for young adults; 2.7 per cent for middle-aged adults; and 5.2 per cent, for older adults) and the highest in eastern European countries (7.5 per cent for young adults; 9.6 per cent for middle-aged adults; and 21.3 per cent for older adults).
Data were insufficient to make conclusions about trends of loneliness overtime on a global scale, but the researchers point out that even if the problem of loneliness had not worsened during their search period (2000-19), covid-19 might have had a profound impact on loneliness. In this context, they say "our review provides an important pre-pandemic baseline for future surveillance."
They acknowledged that their review was subject to limitations, such as different sampling procedures and measures adopted by studies. And they noted that the data gaps in low and middle-income countries raised an important issue of equity.
However, considering the negative effects of loneliness on health and longevity, the authors said, their findings reinforced the urgency of approaching loneliness as an important public health issue.
"Public health efforts to prevent and reduce loneliness require well-coordinated ongoing surveillance across different life stages and broad geographical areas," they wrote.
"Sizeable differences in prevalence of loneliness across countries and regions call for in-depth investigation to unpack the drivers of loneliness at systemic levels and to develop interventions to deal with them," they concluded.
Loneliness is costly to individuals and society and should be a political priority, argued Roger O'Sullivan at the Institute of Public Health in Ireland and colleagues, in a linked editorial.
They pointed out that the pandemic dispelled the myth that loneliness was just an older person's problem and said public health interventions must now take this into account and take a life course approach.
This meant addressing the social and structural factors that influenced risk of loneliness, including poverty, education, transport, inequalities, and housing - as well as increasing protective measures, such as public awareness campaigns that deal with stigma and stereotypes around loneliness, valuing community involvement and participation.