Jan. 09 2020

International Experts Call for Unified Approach to Addressing Loneliness

International experts, including Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH, Dean of Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, have published a letter in The Lancet medical journal calling for a unified approach to addressing the global challenge of loneliness.

In response to the growing concerns about the rates and consequences of loneliness, international experts based in universities, research and public health organizations have been working together to help address this issue.

The signatories include experts from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland; Columbia University; George Mason University; University of Auckland; Swansea University; Ulster University; St James’s Hospital; University of Chicago; Trinity College Dublin; Boston College; University of California; Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; and Brunel University London.

The letter is based on discussions of international researchers at a meeting hosted in Belfast by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland. This has led to the establishment of an International Loneliness and Social Isolation Research Network, which is chaired by Dean Fried.

While demographic shifts suggest that the number of people experiencing loneliness will increase, experts say that it is important to recognize that most older adults are not chronically lonely and that young adults are also affected.

Experts say that loneliness can be defined as a “subjective negative experience that results from inadequate meaningful connections,” and have called for a standardized approach to defining and measuring loneliness to help inform those developing policy and services in this area.

The expert group added that charities, community sectors, and governments, who are delivering programs often have inadequate evidence to plan from and need a more coherent message from research, and a stronger evidence base.

And while more research is needed to find out the full consequences of loneliness, the evidence shows association with poor health and wellbeing, non-communicable diseases, and depression.

Dean Fried said that in a time when as a society we have never had more opportunities to connect with people, there is a growing focus on loneliness and its association with poor health outcomes.

She said: “This problem isn’t just the story of isolated individuals, but a confluence of social circumstances that result in pushing our seniors to the periphery of society. As we live increasingly longer lives, it’s crucial that we redesign our world to better value older adults and create opportunities for purpose and belonging. Doing so benefits people of all ages.”

Linda P. Fried’s Aging Expertise

An internationally recognized expert on aging, Dean Linda P. Fried led the development of our modern understanding and definition of frailty as a clinical syndrome. Fried has led numerous key studies on the causes of frailty and opportunities for prevention and treatment. Beginning in the early 1990s, she collaborated with social activist Marc Freedman to design and develop a nationwide senior volunteer program now called Experience Corps. The program trains adult volunteers, ages 55 and older, to improve the academic success of students in economically disadvantaged public elementary schools. Fried and Freedman codesigned the program to have a social impact with children and schools and as a public health intervention to improve the health of volunteers and decrease loneliness. A 2009 study using functional magnetic resonance imaging showed that participants experienced gains in executive cognitive function compared with a control group. The program now exists in 23 cities across the United States under the aegis of AARP.

In recent years, Dean Fried has examined loneliness among seniors with colleagues in the U.S. and beyond, presenting at the International Loneliness Symposium in Belfast, Ireland, as well as a National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee on the subject. Following the Belfast meeting, she was asked to chair of the International Loneliness and Isolation Knowledge Network, which gathers international academics, researchers, non-governmental organizations and charities to share the latest research, evidence, policy, and practice in this area. In the spring of 2020, the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, which she directs, will host an Age Boom Academy focused on loneliness among older adults, to brief journalists about research on the subject.