More than 35,000 people across Lancashire are lonely or socially isolated, it has been revealed.
The problem is widely considered to be one affecting the elderly, but it can hit anybody, at any age.
Experts say more than 22,000 households are affected within the county, and say loneliness and isolation can lead to serious health conditions.
Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, director of public health and wellbeing at Lancashire County Council, said they were “significant issues” in Lancashire.
He said: “We estimate roughly about seven to 10 per cent of our population is socially isolated or lonely.
“The figures go up to about 15 per cent, particularly in the older population if they are from a black and minority ethnic background.
Compared with people who are never lonely, the people who are lonely are more likely to use their GPs or accident and emergency and are more highly likely to have emergency admissions.Dr Karunanithi
“So we estimate about 35,000 people across Lancashire are isolated or lonely.
“The implication is, if somebody is lonely or socially isolated, it means there’s a lack of social support structures.”
Dr Karunanithi said it could mean a higher likelihood of developing depression, and people could be more prone to later develop dementia.
He said: “All that put together, there’s a higher likelihood of long-term conditions like diabetes and stroke.
“There are some estimates that say being socially isolated is the equivalent to smoking 10 to 15 cigarettes a day.
“Compared with people who are never lonely, the people who are lonely are more likely to use their GPs or accident and emergency and are more highly likely to have emergency admissions.”
He also said estimates had been made that suggested people who are socially isolated and lonely are three times more likely to enter local authority-funded residential care, and said: “That is already putting a strain on local councils.”
As the population gets older, Dr Karunanithi said the problem was likely to become a significant issue over the next decade.
He said “risk factors” were around single people, pensioners who were recently widowed or going through a retirement, ill, disabled or hard of hearing.
He said it had been discovered that a “befriending” service and one-to-one support had been less successful than “group interventions” to tackle loneliness.
He said: “Just over 22,000 households across the Lancashire County Council area have said people living in those households have a high likelihood of becoming socially isolated.
“Our estimates suggest the households in Wyre, Lancaster, Fylde and Preston have the highest numbers of social isolation.
“And about 35,000 people are either lonely or socially isolated, so that’s why it’s a serious issue.
“The evidence is emerging it’s both physical and mental.”
Dr Karunanithi described loneliness as a “social issue” rather than a clinical issue, but said people within public services were being trained to spot the signs.
He said work was being done to engage with other groups and third sector organisations to tackle the problem.
He said: “As public services are stretched and the grants and income coming into local authorities from central government reduce, our ability to address prevention will be further challenged.
“That’s why we want to engage with businesses and workplaces, which all operate in our communities, and also we want local volunteer and faith sector agencies to mobilise.
“It’s also being a good neighbour and creating neighbourhoods so people feel confident to go out.”