New study: Loneliness is the greatest threat to wellbeing in Europe

Every year, European adults lose 11.4 million good years of life to loneliness. This makes loneliness more detrimental to human happiness than any other condition under consideration.


What’s worse: not being able to pay the bills? Living with a debilitating chronic condition like Parkinson's disease? Or feeling isolated and alone?


Our new report – Long and Happy Lives: The Future of Wellbeing in an Aging Society – seeks to answer these questions. In this report, we focus on the link between subjective wellbeing and 26 adverse life conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, unemployment, physical inactivity, divorce, cancer, loneliness, and more. Our analysis is largely based on survey data from more than 115,000 respondents over the age of 50 in Europe. We estimate wellbeing burdens associated with each condition in terms of “Wellbeing Adjusted Life Years (WALYs)” lost.

“The use of subjective wellbeing metrics can help to uncover impacts and burdens that have been traditionally been underestimated or remain completely invisible to us.” - Kirsten Jensen, Principal Advisor The Treasury of New Zealand (Te Tai Ōhanga)

WALYs enable us to rank the severity of each condition in terms of their negative influence on human wellbeing. This ranking can be estimated on two levels: 1) by considering how much wellbeing individuals lose to the life condition in question, and 2) by considering how much wellbeing is lost to a given condition among all individuals in a given society. (1)


Severe loneliness is twice as bad as unemployment

When considering wellbeing lost on the individual level, severe loneliness represents the largest threat to wellbeing in later life. European adults over the age of 50 who experience severe loneliness lose approximately 25% of their wellbeing every year. To put this figure into context, this loss is more than twice as large as the loss from unemployment, and more than 11 times larger than the wellbeing loss of high blood pressure.

11.4 million good years of life are lost every year in Europe to loneliness

When aggregating total wellbeing burdens across all affected individuals in Europe, we find that European adults lose 11.4 million good years of life to moderate and severe loneliness every year. This makes loneliness a significantly greater threat to societal wellbeing than other severe conditions including depression (6.4 million), cancer (1.4 million), Alzheimer's disease (618,000), and Parkinson’s disease (165,000).

(In this graph moderate and severe loneliness are grouped into one category. In the report, they are considered separately.)


Why is loneliness the worst life condition?

It may strike some as surprising that loneliness presents such a sizable threat to wellbeing in later life. However, it is important to remember that humans are social beings and that a lack of social connection and support can be extremely detrimental to our ability to thrive. An emerging body of research has begun to document the dramatic toll that loneliness can take on both mental and physical health. Across a range of studies, loneliness has been linked to increased risks of depression, anxiety, suicide, dementia, cardiovascular disease and cancer.(2) Loneliness can also have long-term consequences. A widely cited meta-analysis found that loneliness, social isolation, and living alone increased mortality by 29%, 26%, and 32%, respectively, over a given period of time.(3)

“Ultimately, the good life is about something as simple as having someone or something to get up for in the morning. This is true whether we are young or old. We simply need each other.” - Vibeke Koushede, Professor and Head of the Department of Psychology University of Copenhagen

The current lack of evidence-based remedies for loneliness may also help to explain its considerable cost relative to other conditions. For most of the other problems under consideration, treatment options do exist to help alleviate them. Those affected can seek medication and counseling for depression, mobility aids for physical inactivity, and job-search assistance for unemployment. Yet there is still a considerable lack of scientific evidence on how to address and alleviate loneliness.


Our opinion: These dismal statistics call for immediate action

To protect and support wellbeing in later life, it is crucial that decision-makers take stock of the most important wellbeing burdens affecting older adults. Using WALYs to assess and address these challenges can help open the door to new avenues of decision-making and priority setting. Burdens that may have previously been misunderstood or simply ignored can now be accounted for.


In many European countries, physical health conditions including stroke and cancer have received enormous investments, and for good reason. Yet if we want to foster better lives in the future, these investments should be matched by equivalent investments addressing loneliness. Our report suggests that the problem of loneliness is both dramatically underestimated and under-financed.


About the study

Long and Happy Lives: The Future of Wellbeing in an Aging Society is a cross-national study based on data on more than 115,000 respondents from 18 European countries. It is authored by Michael Birkjær and Micah Kaats from The Happiness Research Institute. The report is commissioned by DaneAge (A Danish not-for-profit organization with more than 900,000 members).


Read the report

Long and Happy Lives: The Future of Wellbeing in an Aging Society

Bibliography

  1. Calculated as: WALYs lost (per person) x prevalence + mortality

  2. Cacioppo et al. (2010); Lim et al. (2016); Heinrich & Gullone (2006).; Wilson et al. (2007).;Malcolm et al. (2019)

  3. Holt-Lunstad et al. (2015)

  4. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2020)



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