Stressful state: Why loneliness is so painful - and how it affects our health

If the circle of friends dwindles, partners die, their health is no longer good or there is not enough money to go to the cinema and restaurants, older people in particular can quickly slip into loneliness.

Stressful state: Why loneliness is so painful - and how it affects our health

If the circle of friends dwindles, partners die, their health is no longer good or there is not enough money to go to the cinema and restaurants, older people in particular can quickly slip into loneliness. A feeling that Helga Müller from Berlin-Tempelhof also knows. Her daughter lives in Athens, her friends are sick, deceased or have moved away. "I go out every day, shop and do my gymnastics, but I lack someone to talk to," says the 85-year-old.

For almost two years now, the pensioner has been able to look forward to one extensive conversation per week. The "Friends of Older People" association, which is active in various large cities, put her in touch with Jan Römmler, a visiting mentor. "I want to use my time sensibly and give it to others," says the 50-year-old trained chef and early retiree.

You can see Helga Müller's joy. She beams all over her face when Römmler picks her up for a walk. "When the weather is good, we always do our rounds and drink coffee in between," says the pensioner. She also already knows what will be the topic of conversation that day: the new Berlin Senate.

The topic of loneliness is increasingly becoming the focus of politics and science. In June 2022, Family Minister Lisa Paus (Greens) gave the go-ahead for a "strategy against loneliness". "The aim is to shed more light on the topic in Germany and to tackle loneliness more effectively," explains Axel Weber from the "Loneliness Competence Network" (KNE), which provides scientific support and assistance to the ministry.

A study by the KNE states that before the Covid-19 pandemic, around 14 percent of people in Germany were lonely. During the pandemic, the proportion increased to 42 percent in 2021. However, all people who stated that they felt lonely at least sometimes were counted.

"A minority feels permanently lonely. Most people feel safe," says loneliness researcher Maike Luhmann from the Ruhr University in Bochum. She assumes that around five percent of the population are chronically lonely.

It is not yet known how the number of lonely people has developed since the corona pandemic. Statistics are generally difficult. "There is no measurable definition. In science, loneliness is defined as a condition in which social relationships do not meet people's expectations. This point is somewhere different for each person," says Luhmann.

Nor can it be said that the number of lonely people has increased in recent decades. "We don't know how lonely people were 20, 30 or 50 years ago," says Luhmann. Loneliness research is still in its infancy in Germany. Today many people live alone. But that doesn't automatically mean that they also feel lonely.

The KNE wants to bundle the existing knowledge about loneliness and generate new knowledge. Among other things, according to Weber, the scientists are developing a loneliness barometer in order to obtain data on the phenomenon in different population groups, which can also be compared over time.

One thing is clear: "Lonely people lack social relationships and contacts, especially high-quality contacts, close intimate relationships with other people such as partners or friends, but also other contacts with other people in everyday life," says Luhmann. This also applies to younger people and those in middle adulthood. "Even starting a family and living with small children can make you lonely. Many also have to establish themselves professionally during this phase and have even less time for friends," says the scientist.

And the feeling can make you ill: "Loneliness hurts. In chronic loneliness, the same areas are activated in the brain as in pain," says the psychologist. There is no clinical diagnosis in the classic sense for the feeling and no therapies or medication. We know, however, that loneliness is associated with great risks. Chronic loneliness can promote both mental and physical illnesses such as depression, coronary heart disease, strokes or heart attacks.

"We are social animals and made to live in groups with others and to function particularly well there. Loneliness is not programmed in our bodies and souls at all," adds Eva Peters, specialist in psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy at the University of Giessen.

The feeling of loneliness means constant stress for the body because it is on constant alert. The social environment is missing as a buffer for possible dangerous situations. "This ensures that we constantly release too many stress hormones," explains Peters. This in turn can lead to high blood pressure and other diseases.

"Lonely people are also a little more at risk of developing cancer," says the doctor. Because the monitoring function of the immune system can be disturbed by chronic stress, so that newly developing cancer cells are only recognized and killed to a lesser extent.

Another danger is the lack of intellectual challenge. "If no interaction and stimuli come, the brain atrophies like an unused muscle. This can be the beginning of Alzheimer's and dementia," says Peters.

"Loneliness can really eat you up from the inside," observes Jan Römmler. His new friend Helga Müller made a stunted impression at first. "In the meantime, she has really blossomed," is Römmler's assessment.

"Every kind of social relationship is good at first. But I'm always a bit skeptical about approaches that include different generations," says Maike Luhmann. Such sponsorships could be an opportunity to develop mutual understanding. "But people of different ages have different social needs, which I think are more likely to be met by people of similar age."

Helga Müller sees it differently: "I can't talk about the topics that interest me at the moment with friends of the same age that I still have," says the Berliner.

One of the most important measures against loneliness from Luhmann's point of view: prevention. "Especially with older people you have to think a lot in this direction, encourage them, if they can still do it, to take care of their social relationships, to build up a network". She also supports the concept of the "social convoy". "This is a group of people with whom you go through life, friends, family, partners, colleagues. It can vary, but many people feel good to have such a solid group around them," says Luhmann.

Above all, politics is in demand, for example in the design of public space. "Places and buildings must be designed in such a way that they are accessible to everyone. Ultimately, it's always about participation". For older people, she also sees a great opportunity in digitization, says Luhmann. Helga Müller, for example, owns neither a smartphone nor internet. She became aware of the Friends of Older People's Association through an article in a tenants' magazine.

"Apps could complement a lot, but not replace everything. From time to time we need the human warmth of real togetherness," says Eva Peters. Rather, she advocates changing the living situation in such a way that one has daily contact and interaction with and with other people.

The federal government is already funding numerous initiatives and model projects. From Maike Luhmann's point of view, this is positive on the one hand. "On the other hand, there has hardly been any research into how such projects work," says the scientist.