The effects of loneliness go deep, affecting physical and emotional well-being. Picture used for illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Loneliness is linked to a 14 per cent greater risk of premature death, making it more harmful to health than poverty, according to a new study reported by NewsLook.

This is supported by latest research from US-based Brigham Young University that says loneliness is just as much a threat to longevity as obesity.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the lead author for this study was quoted on Science Daily: “The effect of this [loneliness] is comparable to obesity, something that public health takes very seriously. We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.”

Loneliness can be for various reasons, including old age, failed relationships, an unhappy childhood, social isolation. Despite being with someone/married or surrounded by people, there are many who still feel alone, but we rarely talk about it as a community. Today we look at loneliness and its causes, despite being with someone.

According to Christina Burmeister, a counselling psychologist based in Dubai, there are several situations when loneliness can strike, especially in a relationship. One reason is that the couple might be too caught up with work. Or, one partner might focus on childrearing, and therefore cause the other to feel neglected.

She said: “The basic problem is the expectation that marriage will make your life complete. People think, ‘I was promised that when I get married, I would never be lonely again.’” This inevitably leads to disappointment and eventually, disengagement.

Naina Nair, who has been married for 23 years, agreed: “If you expect a lot, that can create friction in marriage and lead to loneliness and depression if the expectations are not met.”

According to US-based journal Public Library of Science, the sense of being alone impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Dr Lavina Ahuja, a personal development consultant in Dubai, said: “More often than not, loneliness in marriage or a relationship is about a lack of sense of emotional connection. Both partners need to put in the effort to communicate ... communication on a deeper level.”

David Woodward, a managing partner based in Dubai, acknowledges the value of simply talking. His first marriage lasted for 25 years, and he has since remarried.

He said: “I believe that loneliness ...is really a symptom of two people who have stopped talking to each other.”

Such issues need to be addressed, as it is a symptom of something that is seriously amiss.

In a survey published by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in 2010, slightly more than one out of three adults 45 years and over reported being chronically lonely (meaning they’ve been lonely for a long time). Another study states that a list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, high blood pressure, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer — tumors can metastasise faster in lonely people.

Dr Ahuja said: “Feeling alone ... is not a good sign. Lack of a sense of connection can have a significant impact on an individual’s sense of wellbeing.”

Sometimes it’s not always about the quality of the relationship. Feelings of isolation spring up due to circumstances in a couple’s lives. Loss of a job, illness or a death in the family can cause a spouse to withdraw and turn inward.

For Noel Malicdem, an architect based in Dubai, physical distance or isolation is the biggest cause of loneliness despite being in a marriage. It is an issue plenty of UAE expatriates face - being away from family. Up until a year ago, Malicdem’s wife and children were living the UAE, but had to return to the Philippines due to financial constraints.

While Malicdem recognises the importance of keeping in touch with family, he also stresses the importance of keeping loneliness at bay: “You need to have a social life. If I stay home and sulk, then that affects my attitude towards my family as well. Personally, cycling is my hobby, my outlet. I also find that expressing feelings through poetry and art helps.”

There are times, however, when a relationship itself can be the cause of loneliness.

Deepika Kasturi, a senior finance professional in Dubai, was married off at age 16 to a man 10 years her senior. She endured 15 years of matrimonial unhappiness, she is now in the process of a divorce.

Due to her young age, Kasturi had difficulty adjusting to her situation. “I had just hit puberty and was learning about my body, then I had to get married. For a year, I didn’t know what was happening to me. I was more than just lonely, I was confused. I knew nothing. I was lost. I was completely clueless.

“He didn’t even come with me to the hospital when I gave birth, which was a Caesarean birth. I just brought my eldest child with me and gave birth to my second one alone. The only time he showed up was to sign a hospital document the next day. He came, he signed, then he left.

“I was lost, depressed. I just lost hope for my life. I tried committing suicide ... many times.

“I feel better now .... I have self-respect. No one can talk down to me.”

Loneliness has doubled — 40 per cent of adults in two recent surveys said they were lonely, up from 20 per cent in the 1980s. The Guardian writes: “Social isolation and loneliness are well known as causes of depression, mental health problems and physical illness.”

A healthy community is one that is resilient and inclusive, which is vital to a  people’s progress. So, we need to be alert to the signals of loneliness around us.

As Noel Malicdem told Gulf News: “Life is very fragile here. People are very fragile. You need activities that you can look forward to and can keep you going. Pursue your passions, your interests. It’s one of the best ways to solve loneliness.”