Societal breakdown has led to a massive rise in the number of people lying undiscovered after dying at home, research suggests.
Once an incredibly rare phenomenon, incidence of people being discovered days, weeks, months or years after they have died has increased 17-fold in 60 years, a study found.
Experts from the University of Oxford and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust said the ‘concerning’ trend showed social isolation was a growing issue in the UK, particularly among men.
They admitted their findings will only be the ‘tip of the iceberg’ with the state of decomposition seldom recorded on official death data.
Researchers analysed data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), identifying deaths where bodies were found in a state of decomposition.
Experts said the incidence of people being discovered days, weeks, months or years after they die has increased 17-fold in 60 years in a concerning’ trend showing a rise in social isolation (stock photo)
They studied those recorded as ‘unattended deaths’ and ‘other ill-defined and unknown causes of mortality’.
It revealed a steady increase in undefined deaths between 1979 and 2020 for both sexes with just 59 recorded in 1961 compared to 1042 in 2021, the most recent figures.
The proportion of total male deaths exceeded female deaths, with these deaths increasing significantly among males during the 1990 and 2000s, when overall mortality was rapidly improving.
This acceleration in deaths where people are found decomposed, particularly for men, is a concerning trend, the authors said.
Dr Estrin-Serlui, of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, said: ‘Many people would be shocked that someone can lie dead at home for days, weeks or even longer, without anyone raising an alarm among the community they live in.
‘The increase in people found dead and decomposed suggests wider societal breakdowns of both formal and informal social support networks even before the pandemic.
‘They are concerning and warrant urgent further investigation.’
Publishing their findings in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, the authors said the vast majority of those people who died and developed advanced decomposition would have had ‘significant social isolation’.
Previous research had found the pandemic caused a spike in these deaths due to enforced lockdowns but the overall upwards trend predates Covid, they added.
It suggests increasing levels of social neglect and worsening societal breakdown of community, familial and social support networks over the past few decades, they said, adding these will only be a tiny fraction of those affected by loneliness.
It follows the harrowing case of Laura Winham, a vulnerable 38-year-old who suffered from schizophrenia and heard voices in her head that made her believe her family were trying to harm her.
She was eventually found in a ‘mummified almost skeletal state’ by her family in her flat in Woking, Surrey, almost four years after she died.
It led to questions over how the death of someone living in social housing and receiving mental healthcare could go unnoticed for so long.
Kate Jopling of the Campaign to End Loneliness said: ‘While it’s shocking to think that someone could die alone and lay undiscovered, we shouldn’t really be surprised given what the evidence tells us about levels of loneliness and social isolation across the country.
‘A significant minority of us – around 10 per cent across all age groups – feel lonely often or always.
‘While it’s possible to be lonely even in a crowd, many lonely people are also isolated, and the lonelier we are the more we tend to cut ourselves off from others.
‘Of course it doesn’t have to be this way. We know that, with the right support, people who are lonely can reconnect with their communities.’
Researchers are now calling on official measures to identify deaths where people are found decomposed more easily in routine data.