Well over one million elderly people in the UK describe themselves as lonely often or all of the time, and many more consider their pet, or even the television, to be their most important form of company.
The survey, conducted this month, consulted more than 2,000 people over the age of 65, of whom there are nearly 11 million in the UK.
Two in every five respondents said their main form of company was either their pet or the television. Nationally, this would be the equivalent of 4.3m people.
Loneliness has been identified as a key public health problem in recent years, as more people become cut off from society as they retire from work and lose their independence through disability.
Recent research in the US suggests that being lonely carried twice the health risk of obesity, with people who reported loneliness 14 per cent more likely than average to die in the course of the six-month study.
The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, highlighted loneliness in a speech last year, calling the plight of the “chronically lonely” a “national shame”. He said it was a problem which “in our busy lives we have utterly failed to confront as a society”.
However, Age UK’s director Caroline Abrahams said that funding cuts, which were brought in by the Coalition, were forcing many of the local services which help elderly people stay connected, such as lunch clubs, to close – increasing the work that the voluntary sector had to do.
“We know how devastating loneliness can be for older people and these figures are another reminder of the scale of the issue,” she said.
Kate Jopling, director for the Campaign to End Loneliness, added: “It should be a grave concern to health and social care managers that so many older people are now severely lonely. The evidence is clear that loneliness leads to avoidable ill health.
“If we fail to take this public health issue seriously now we may end up pushing already stretched services to breaking point.”