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Assessing Loneliness During the Holidays

Assessing Loneliness During the Holidays

There’s a new online questionnaire that won’t tell you what ugly sweater to wear or which holiday movie best describes your life – instead, it will help determine your likelihood of feeling lonely. And based on a recent national survey conducted by Cigna®, nearly half of American adults report sometimes or always feeling alone.

Feelings of loneliness are a year-round phenomenon, though social pressures during the holidays may make them worse. This season, Cigna is asking people to check in on their mental well-being and understand its impact on overall health.

Daniel Russell, Ph.D., has been studying loneliness for more than 40 years and developed the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a framework for identifying feelings of isolation and the basis for Cigna’s online tool. He says Cigna’s survey uncovered some of the highest levels of loneliness he’s ever seen.

“I wouldn’t have said loneliness was an epidemic until I saw the Cigna data,” Dr. Russell said. “Loneliness is perhaps something we need to examine again, as a clinical phenomenon.”

By putting a version of Dr. Russell’s scale online, where it is easily accessible, Cigna hopes to reduce the stigma associated with loneliness and help individuals get the help they need.

“We heard from customers that they were feeling isolated, and they didn’t know who to talk to,” said Douglas Nemecek, M.D., chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna. “As individuals, we’re often uncomfortable talking to people about our mental well-being, and health care providers might also not feel comfortable raising the topic with someone who isn’t open to talking about it.”

Loneliness is not a diagnosable condition, but Dr. Nemecek says checking in on feelings of loneliness may help prevent long-term health risks. In fact, loneliness may be more dangerous than obesity1 and has been linked to heart disease2, cancer3, diabetes4, and depression5. It’s also been shown to be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.1

Especially during the holidays, Dr. Nemecek recommends those of us experiencing loneliness to acknowledge their feelings and take proactive steps to do something about it. Depending on their loneliness score, people who take the questionnaire will receive suggestions on how to improve their mental well-being, and simple steps to increase social connections. Those more likely to be lonely are encouraged to talk to their health care provider at their annual check-up and reach out to others, while less lonely scorers are reminded that they can help someone else.
“The holidays bring a lot of issues to bear for all of us,” Dr. Nemecek said. “This time of year, it’s important for all of us to remember that it might not just be us feeling lonely.”

To learn more about combating feelings of loneliness and how you can help others, take Cigna’s loneliness questionnaire.

A woman sitting in a living room decorated for the holidays looking at a tablet.

This is general health information and not medical advice or services. Always consult with your doctor for appropriate examinations, treatment, testing, and health care recommendations.

1 Testimony before the US Senate Aging Committee, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., 2017;
https://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/SCA_Holt_04_27_17.pdf.

2 Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies, BMJ Journals Heart, 2016;
http://heart.bmj.com/content/102/13/1009.info.

3 Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2015;
http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/11/18/1514249112.

4 Socially isolated individuals are more prone to have newly diagnosed and prevalent type 2 diabetes mellitus – the Maastricht study, BMC Public Health, 2017;
https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/%2010.1186/s12889-017-4948-6.

5 Unraveling the Role of Loneliness in Depression: The Relationship Between Daily Life Experience and Behavior, Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 2017;
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00332747.2016.1256143.