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A new study from Chicago finds that adults in places with high rates of violent crime are more likely to say they feel lonely, a consequence that can come with health repercussions.
Loneliness has become a public health epidemic in the United States in recent years, with one fifth of adults, and one quarter of older adults, reporting being socially isolated. While it may be difficult to quantify the extent of someone’s social network and the quality of their connections to others, one thing has become abundantly clear to health researchers: loneliness is a health hazard.
“Loneliness is now a mortality risk factor proportional to other traditional risk factors like obesity and poor physical activity,” said Elizabeth Tung, an instructor of medicine at the University of Chicago. “It’s equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
Loneliness isn’t equally spread across the population. Tung and three colleagues recently studied neighborhoods in Chicago with high rates of violent crime to determine if exposure to violence impacts rates of loneliness.
Tung, who published the study this month in Health Affairs, found that living in a community with a great deal of violence—even if a person is not directly a victim—can lead to living a lonelier life. Exposure to community violence was associated with a 3.3% reduction in the frequency of contact with people in their social network, and a 7.3% reduction in perceived support from friends.
More than half of the participants, 58.9%, were exposed to community violence either directly or indirectly. The association between violence and loneliness increased depending on how close the violence was to the individual. Indirect exposure—like witnessing a murder, or having a family member who was murdered—meant community members were 1.7 more likely to report loneliness than the general population, while direct exposure resulting from being a victim of a crime like robbery or assault meant they were 2.3 times more likely. People who showed signs of PTSD related to community violence were 3.3 times more likely to be lonely.
Most participants in the study, which interviewed 504 people during 2018, were older, black women, and Tung said fear of crime might cause social withdrawal as a survival tactic. But that withdrawal can have repercussions. “Without a social network, it’s hard to buffer trauma,” she said.
“With loneliness seemingly increasing, there’s been a lot of debate about how we should direct our resources,” Tung added.
In general, loneliness and social isolation can put people at a higher risk of various physical and mental conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, depression, obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
Healthcare providers have tried a number of solutions to deal with the quandary of loneliness, especially among older people. Physicians in the United Kingdom are now writing prescriptions for social activities, advising their patients to take dance classes, join walking groups, and volunteer in their communities as part of a government plan led by the new Minister for Loneliness. Evaluations of the social prescription program have been positive, especially for people with chronic or long-term conditions.
There’s a version of this effort in the U.S., run through the Medicare Accountable Health Communities pilot, which is operating in 30 communities. The program not only encourages doctors to prescribe social activities, but also builds links between hospitals and their local communities so that doctors are more aware of what is available to their patients once they leave the office—so if a patient needs food or housing resources, doctors can advise them on local organizations that can help.
“These are all about connections,” Tung said. “So instead of suggesting a meal delivery program, doctors might suggest an organization that does group meals in the community.”
And it isn’t just health care providers who have taken notice of the loneliness epidemic. Like most things nowadays, there’s an app for that. A company in California, Mon Ami, pairs students in the Bay Area with elderly people, with the goal of supporting their wellbeing through conversation and quality time. Families pay $25 per hour, and students receive $20 of that.
But even with the growing attention on loneliness, Tung said there is still more that can be done, especially for people who have been exposed to violence. “Violence is so pervasive in the American psyche now,” she said. “It seems like every day there’s another mass shooting, stories of police brutality, sexual violence, it’s hard not to wonder if something broader is going on where loneliness is linked to the violence we hear about.”
“It makes me think that one of the most important interventions could be violence prevention,” she said.
But Tung stressed that in the meantime, local governments should conduct more research and target their efforts appropriately. “Our research showed that especially in neighborhoods affected by violence, funding could go a long way to help communities create the social support resources they need,” she said. “The more opportunities available to patients, the better off they’ll be.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.