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Study: COVID-19 led to an increase in loneliness around the world

Researchers reviewed 34 studies from four continents.

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Painful isolation can shorten lifespan and exacerbate physical and mental health issues: The findings were published in American Psychologist.
(Wikimedia Commons)

By Stephen Beech via SWNS

COVID-19 led to an increase in loneliness around the world, according to a new study.

Researchers found that people all over the globe suffered an increase in loneliness during the pandemic - which could have implications for people’s long-term mental and physical health, and longevity.

Study lead author Doctor Mareike Ernst, of Johannes Gutenberg University, Germany, said: “The pandemic does appear to have increased loneliness.

"However, as loneliness constitutes a risk for premature mortality and mental and physical health, it should be closely monitored.

"We think that loneliness should be made a priority in large-scale research projects aimed at investigating the health outcomes of the pandemic.”

Dr. Ernst and her colleagues wanted to explore whether changes such as lockdowns, physical distancing, and the switch to remote work and school during the pandemic affected people's mental health negatively from isolation.

She said such measures undoubtedly increased social isolation, but research has found that social isolation does not always lead to loneliness.

Social isolation means having a small social network and few interactions with others, while loneliness is the painful feeling of having less or poorer quality social connections than a person wants. Some studies have found only weak correlations between the two.

To figure out whether the pandemic actually increased loneliness, the researchers reviewed 34 studies from four continents -- primarily in Europe and North America - involving more than 200,000 total participants. All of the data came from long-term studies that measured participants’ levels of loneliness before the onset of the pandemic and again during the pandemic.

The researchers found a "small but significant" increase in loneliness during the pandemic -- about a five percent increase in the prevalence across the individual studies, on average. However, not all groups experienced that increase.

Dr. Ernst says more research is needed on the factors that put some individuals and groups at higher risk of experiencing loneliness, whether the changes were primarily due to alterations in the quality or the quantity of people’s social interactions, and whether those differed across different social groups, such as students and older adults.

She said such studies could help researchers develop better-targeted interventions to increase people’s amount of social interaction or to improve the quality of their close relationships.

Dr. Ernst added: “Strong evidence supporting interventions addressing loneliness remains limited.

"The increase in loneliness associated with the pandemic highlights the need for a concerted effort to strengthen that evidence base."

She said that because the majority of the studies in this review came from high- and upper-middle-income countries, further research should also investigate whether the pandemic has had the same effect in low and middle-income countries as well.

The findings were published in the journal American Psychologist.

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