Sat, Sep 10, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Healing the lonely

Hotlines and community centers across the UK are helping elderly people mitigate the depressing, and often deadly, effects of loneliness, while the US has yet to follow suit

By Katie Hafner  /  NY Times News Service, BLACKPOOL, England

Illustration: Lance Liu

The woman on the other end of the telephone spoke lightheartedly of spring and her 81st birthday the previous week.

“Who did you celebrate with, Beryl?” asked Alison, whose job was to offer a kind ear.

“No one, I...” And with that, Beryl’s cheer turned to despair.

Her voice began to quaver as she acknowledged that she had been alone at home not just on her birthday, but for days and days. The telephone conversation was the first time she had spoken in more than a week.

About 10,000 similar calls come in weekly to an unassuming office building in this seaside town at the northwest reaches of England, which houses The Silver Line helpline, a 24-hour call center for older adults seeking to fill a basic need: Contact with other people.

Loneliness, which Emily Dickinson described as “the Horror not to be surveyed,” is a quiet devastation. However, in Britain, it is increasingly being viewed as something more: A serious public health issue deserving of public funds and national attention.

Working with local governments and the UK’s National Health Service, programs aimed at mitigating loneliness have sprung up in dozens of cities and towns. Even fire brigades have been trained to inspect homes not just for fire safety, but for signs of social isolation.

“There’s been an explosion of public awareness here, from local authorities to the [UK] Department of Health to the media,” said Paul Cann, chief executive of Age UK Oxfordshire and a founder of The Campaign to End Loneliness, a five-year-old group based in London. “Loneliness has to be everybody’s business.”

Researchers have found mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline. As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity.

“The profound effects of loneliness on health and independence are a critical public health problem,” said Carla Perissinotto, a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco. “It is no longer medically or ethically acceptable to ignore older adults who feel lonely and marginalized.”

In Britain and the US, about one in three people older than 65 live alone, and in the US, half of those older than 85 live alone. Studies in both countries show the prevalence of loneliness among people older than 60 ranging from 10 to 46 percent.

BRAIN REGION FOUND

While the public, private and volunteer sectors in Britain are mobilizing to address loneliness, researchers are deepening their understanding of its biological underpinnings. In a paper published earlier this year in the journal Cell, neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) identified a region of the brain they believe generates feelings of loneliness. The region, known as the dorsal raphe nucleus, or DRN, is best known for its link to depression.

Kay Tye and her colleagues found that when mice were housed together, dopamine neurons in the DRN were relatively inactive. However, after the mice were isolated for a short period, the activity in those neurons surged when those mice were reunited with other mice.

“This is the first time we’ve found a cellular substrate for this experience,” said Tye, an assistant professor at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT and a senior author of the paper. “And we saw the change after 24 hours of isolation.”

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