TUESDAY, Dec. 25, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- Though this is the time of year when family and friends gather and connect, loneliness remains a serious public health issue in the United States, an expert on aging says.
More and more Americans are lonely, and there's growing evidence that it can pose significant health risks.
Nearly one-third of older Americans are lonely, and chronic loneliness has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, disability, mental decline, depression, early entry into nursing homes, and an increase in doctor's visits.
"Loneliness is one of the most pressing public health issues facing the country today," said Kerstin Emerson, a clinical assistant professor of gerontology at the University of Georgia's College of Public Health.
"Recent studies have even suggested that loneliness is a risk factor for early death comparable to smoking or being an alcoholic," she said in a university news release.
And loneliness isn't limited to people who live alone.
"People who are socially isolated might be more likely to be lonely, but married people can be lonely as well, as can people who come from very family-oriented or community-oriented cultures," Emerson said. "Loneliness doesn't discriminate."
But it can be difficult to identify people who are lonely.
"Unlike things like diabetes, we can't just take a blood sample and determine loneliness. The only way we can measure loneliness is to ask. Usually we ask a series of questions that are part of scales to get at loneliness," Emerson said.
Loneliness can be difficult to treat because its causes and remedies vary from person to person.
"At its heart, loneliness is a personalized issue, and every solution is an individualized solution," Emerson said. "There are therapies that can help people who need to build social skills. There are services that will help you get from your home to church or your local senior center. Maybe a virtual chat room would meet your needs," she added.
"During the holiday season, we often get wrapped up in ourselves and our own family's needs, but thinking about others who may need just a little bit more interaction -- a phone call, a quick hello to a neighbor -- is a big help," Emerson said.
Things you can do to help reduce loneliness in your community include: signing older adults up for classes on how to use social media, or teach them yourself; offering older relatives or neighbors regular rides to church, the gym or community senior centers; and volunteering with Meals on Wheels or other groups.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on loneliness.