Around 1 in 4 Americans report experiencing loneliness during the holiday season.
According to a survey from the American Psychological Association, around 1 in 4 Americans report experiencing loneliness during the holiday season.
Loneliness is not an issue that only arises at Christmas, however; a 2010 loneliness study from the AARP - formerly the American Association of Retired Persons - found that 35% of American adults aged 45 and over are lonely all year round.
But with such enormous focus on family gatherings and other social events during the holiday season, feelings of loneliness are often exacerbated at this time of year.
Older individuals are particularly affected by loneliness during the holidays; a survey from Age UK revealed that around 5% of the elderly British population spent Christmas Day alone in 2010, and a more recent survey from the organization revealed that more than 300,000 elderly adults in the UK say they are not looking forward to the festive season because they will be alone.
"For many people, the festive season is filled with joy and happiness, a magical time to spend with their loved ones. Yet for many older people, Christmas is a thoroughly miserable time that reinforces their feelings of loss and loneliness," says Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK.
Why do some people feel lonely?
The word "lonely" is often used to describe a person who is physically alone due to lack of face-to-face contact with others. While this is true in part, it is not an accurate reflection of what loneliness really is.
According to UK mental health organization Mind, "loneliness is not feeling part of the world. You might be surrounded by loads of people, but you are still lonely."
There are a number of reasons why a person may feel lonely. Personal circumstances, such as the loss of a loved one, a relationship break-up or moving to a new area are common triggers.
Exclusion from social activities - due to lack of money, for example, or mobility problems - can also promote a sense of loneliness, and individuals may feel socially isolated as a result of poor self-confidence or psychological issues that make it hard to form new relationships.
Among older individuals, lack of socialization is a key trigger for loneliness; their children may have flown the nest, possibly moved away and started families of their own, making their visits to parents or grandparents less frequent. In a 2011 survey from Age UK, 12% of over-65s said they never spend time with their family.
How loneliness affects physical and mental health
This fact was supported by a study reported by Medical News Today in October, which found that older adults who have little face-to-face contact with family and friends are at almost twice the risk for depression than those who have frequent in-person contact with their loved ones.
Studies have linked loneliness to increased risk of depression, anxiety and cognitive decline.
Other studies have also associated loneliness with cognitive decline; research presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference earlier this year found study participants who were most lonely experienced cognitive decline around 20% faster than those who were not lonely.
But it is not just mental health that is affected by loneliness; it can take its toll on physical health, too.
In March this year, a study from Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, found that loneliness and social isolation among all age groups may increase the risk for premature death; the researchers claimed that the effects of loneliness and isolation on physical heath are comparable to those of obesity.
It had previously been unclear how loneliness impacts an individual physically, but a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shed some light, revealing that loneliness alters immune system cells in a way that increases susceptibility to illness.
On the next page, we look at the public awareness surrounding loneliness and provide tips on how to deal with feelings of isolation.