Loneliness is twice as unhealthy as obesity and its reach is escalating
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Loneliness is twice as unhealthy as obesity and its reach is escalating

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The number of people living alone has increased by a staggering 80 per cent in the last 17 years, rising to 341 million globally in 2013 according to a report by Euromonitor International. Of course, living alone and feeling lonely are not mutually exclusive but the statistics give some indication of the growing number of people who may be battling loneliness – a disease which has dramatic ramifications for our health.

Just as there are many factors that are involved in causing loneliness – from psychological issues such as low self-esteem and mental health problems to material circumstances and life events – there are many ways in which it can be damaging, as outlined in the Q2 edition of Spa Business 2015.

Studies show that loneliness can interfere with sleep, raise blood pressure, decrease immunity, increase depression, lower overall wellbeing and stimulate the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Last year a research team in the US calculated that loneliness is a big killer and more dangerous for health than obesity.

Professor John Cacioppo and his team at the University of Chicago followed more than 2,000 people aged 50 and over for a period of six years. They found that those who felt the most isolated were nearly twice as likely to die than those who were the least lonely. When compared to the average person, the loneliest were 14 per cent more likely to die young – nearly as great a risk of early death as caused by poverty (19 per cent). A 2010 meta-analysis showed that loneliness has twice the impact on an early death as obesity, says Cacioppo. “The prevalence of loneliness is relatively constant across the lifespan, so everyone could benefit from interventions to combat it,” he told Spa Business.

So is loneliness something spas can address? It’s a possibility given the therapeutic power of touch, says Dr Tiffany Field, founder of the Touch Research Institute – a centre in Miami, US, which is devoted to the study of touch.

“We haven’t specifically studied loneliness, but massage would certainly help people overcome the side effects – we know it alleviates sleep, depression and immune function problems," said Dr Field. "Spas are not only known for their wonderful massages, but they’re also great places to meet people.”

There’s certainly a need for people in society to be touched she added, highlighting the success of a ‘cuddling shop’ which opened in Portland, US, last November. The shop offered an hour of platonic cuddling for US$60 (€49, £38) with the business receiving 10,000 emails in the first week of opening. It had to hire extra staff to meet demand.

Bevis Nathan, a trauma therapist and bodywork specialist based in the UK agrees that massage might help. He said: “Human beings are hard-wired to connect with one another and to be able to connect with themselves. We only truly thrive when we’re in a relationship. Massage, as we know, induces a relaxation response and is a form of relationship. When the brain experiences itself being soothed by another using touch, it can go some way to remind our unconscious selves of the importance of connection and the simple gift of touching.”

He does, however, suggest that the bond between the therapist and guest and creating a comfortable setting is paramount. “Massage, or being at a spa, are not themselves cures for loneliness, of course. But a nurturing and safe environment with a safe physical relationship conveyed through touch – by someone who you trust and have a good rapport with – can relieve the nervous system of some of the existential burden of feeling alone.”

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The number of people living alone has increased by a staggering 80 per cent in the last 17 years, rising to 341 million globally in 2013 according to a report by Euromonitor International. Of course, living alone and feeling lonely are not mutually exclusive but the statistics give some indication of the growing number of people who may be battling loneliness – a disease which has dramatic ramifications for our health.
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