LONELINESS is twice as likely to result in older people dying early than obesity, research has revealed.

Figures released by the University of Chicago found older people with feelings of extreme loneliness were 14 per cent more likely to suffer a premature death, in comparison with seven per cent for obese people.

Campaign manager with the Campaign to End Loneliness Jack Neill-Hall said the figures added to a growing body of evidence showing the profound impact loneliness can have on health.

“Loneliness has been linked with the early onset of disability, cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease,” he said. “It is also closely associated with poor health choices.

“Lonely people are more likely to smoke, drink to excess, have a poor diet and are less likely to exercise enough.”

Describing loneliness as “a genuine public health issue”, he said there are nearly a million older people in the UK who describe themselves as always or often lonely.

“Encouragingly, local authorities are increasingly recognising the need to invest in services which support people to keep up their social connections, develop new friendships to fill the voids that can be left by bereavement,” he said. “But more can and should be done to make sure people don’t face loneliness unsupported.”

Figures have shown that 51 per cent of people in the UK aged 75 and older live alone, while about 5 million older people say television is their main source of company.

Seventeen per cent of older people are in contact with family, friends or neighbours less than once a week, and 11 per cent less than once a month.

Deaf or blind people are at particularly high risk of loneliness, and lonely people are also more likely to develop a disability.

A Worcestershire County Council spokesman said tackling the problem was part of its Future Lives project, which is currently working to revamp care services in the county in a bid to cut the authority’s annual supporting people budget from £15 million to £6.5 million.

The plans – part of the council’s drive to save £98 million by 2017 – are to come before the council’s cabinet on Thursday, March 6.