Feeling lonely is something most people have experienced at some point or other in their lives. After all, it affects all ages, genders and social classes. Thankfully for many of us the feeling doesn't last for long. But frequently feeling lonely can be a problem, especially among older people in the UK.

According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, around 10% of older people say they are often or always lonely. Age UK also claims 1.4 million older people feel cut off from society, and that two-fifths of all older people say their TV is their main company.

What causes loneliness?

We're all vulnerable to loneliness, but some of us are more vulnerable than others because of our personal characteristics and/or circumstances. Many people think of loneliness as simply being alone. But you can be lonely even when you're surrounded by people if you feel they don't understand you or care for you. Equally being on your own may not make you lonely if you feel comfortable not having other people around.

Indeed loneliness is something we all experience differently, and it doesn't necessarily mean the same as social isolation or social exclusion. This may go some way to explaining why one person may feel lonely even though they're surrounded by family and friends, while another enjoys the peace and quiet of being alone (an Office for National Statistics report published in 2013 claims 2 in every 5 people aged 52 and older who live alone say they hardly ever or never feel lonely).

Other things that could lead to loneliness include the following:

Bereavement

Losing a partner or a close friend or relative can be a one reason for feeling lonely. According to the Office for National Statistics, 63% of adults aged 52 or older who have been widowed and 51% of adults of the same age who are separated or divorced say they feel lonely some of the time or often.

Retirement

When you retire you don't just give up your job - you also give up the everyday social network of being with your co-workers and the status that came with your position. You may also have to manage on a lower income than before you retired, which could mean that you won't be able to afford to socialise as often as you used to.

Lack of family or social contact

When family members and friends don't visit very often, it can contribute towards feelings of loneliness. This can be all too common among older people and people living alone whose opportunities for social contact may be limited.

Relocation

Moving far away from your family and friends to a new area where you don't have any social support can lead to loneliness, whatever your age. Many older people may also find it more difficult to get out and make friends than those from younger generations.

Caring for a loved one

People over the age of 65 currently make up one of the fastest growing groups of carers. But caring can be demanding, and carers often neglect their own health and needs because they focus entirely on the person they're caring for. Those who care for a loved one full-time may also find they have less time and energy to focus on their own social networks outside of their caring duties.

Health problems

If you have a physical or a mental health problem it can be a socially isolating experience. According to the Office for National Statistics, 59% of adults aged over 52 who are in poor health say they feel lonely some of the time or often, compared to 21% who say they're in excellent health.

Why it's important to address loneliness

Loneliness is believed to impact on both mental and physical health. According to Age UK, the effect of loneliness can be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is more damaging than obesity.

There are a number of health problems associated with loneliness including depression, poor sleep, high blood pressure, cognitive decline, dementia, coronary heart disease, stroke and immune system problems.

Meanwhile according to the Mental Health Foundation, 42% of people have felt depressed because of loneliness. Being lonely may also make you drink more alcohol, eat less healthily and take less exercise - all of which can affect your mental and physical health.

According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, research also suggests older people who are lonely are more likely to visit their GP, use more medication, and are more likely to have a fall or need long-term care. Preventing loneliness, the campaign argues, is essential in helping older people to remain as independent as possible.

Feeling lonely? CABA can help

If you or someone you're close to is affected by loneliness, we can help. Our telephone friendship service - operated by Age UK - will match you to a volunteer befriender who will keep in touch via a 30-minute telephone call every week. This service is available to past and present ICAEW members and their families who are aged 60+.

If you're under 60 and experiencing loneliness, both the Age UK website and Mind website offer a range of information and advice to help overcome loneliness.

To find out more about CABA's telephone friendship service operated by Age UK, contact us by calling +44 (0) 1788 556 366 or chat to an advisor online.