UK Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed a minister for loneliness in a drive to tackle social isolation, a problem endured by 9 million Britons.
Tracey Crouch will take on the role and lead a cross-party group, honoring a recommendation made in a report on the 2016 murder of Jo Cox MP by a right-wing extremist.
The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness was created as a response to the MP’s own experience of isolation. “This is an issue that Jo cared passionately about and we will honor her memory by tackling it, helping the millions of people across the UK who suffer from loneliness,” Crouch said in a statement.
May was due to host a reception at Downing Street on Wednesday to pay tribute to Cox and her family. “Loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” the prime minister said.
“I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones, people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”
How isolation damages health
The feeling of loneliness can affect more than a person’s quality of life: Studies have shown that living alone – or feeling lonely – raises the likelihood of premature death.
One study of 45,000 people aged 45 and over, who suffered or were at risk from heart disease, found that those who lived alone were more likely to die than those who shared a home with others. The hardship can also be felt by young people – with recent research finding that heavy users of social media had higher levels of perceived social isolation.
Loneliness can also affect health in other ways. For example, isolated people may take insufficient exercise, have poor diets or be less willing to visit a doctor. This can increase stress levels, driving up blood pressure and inflammation that could lead to heart disease.
A challenge for medical professionals is to identify the risk of isolation before it becomes a greater problem. Researcher Dr. Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University in Utah urges doctors to talk to patients about social connections and to recommend support services or counseling to create a healthier lifestyle.