Is Loneliness a Health Epidemic?
In January of this year, Britain appointed its first “minister of loneliness,” who is charged with what Prime Minister Theresa May called the “sad reality of modern life.”
Public health leaders immediately praised the idea, and for good reason. In recent decades researchers have discovered that loneliness– If left untreated is not just emotionally painful; it also can have serious medical consequences. Recent studies have linked loneliness and social isolation to heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. Vivek Murthy, the former United States surgeon general has written that loneliness and social isolation are “associated with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”
Dr. Chris Fagundes wanted to study how loneliness affected the way people felt when they were ill. So the assistant professor of psychology at Rice University and his team recruited 213 healthy participants and asked them to record how they felt.
The results of their study showed that lonelier people feel worse when they are sick than less lonely people. His paper was published in 2017 in the American Psychological Association journal Health Psychology. His study confirmed the above stated facts that loneliness is a health hazard that contributes to and causes disease.
It is very important to understand that loneliness has nothing to do with the number of friends you have or the amount of time you spend alone, but is really a desire for greater social interaction when you are in the mood for it.
You could be constantly surrounded by friends or family but would rather have a very interactive intellectually stimulating conversation with someone who shares your interest in a certain topic. A subject that is of no interest to your spouse, your friends and your family.
But what makes loneliness so toxic? Scientists are looking for answers by delving into how the human body responds to feeling alienated. By concentrating on understanding the genetics and biological mechanisms involved, researchers are on the path to solutions, if not to eradicate loneliness, then at least to blunt its harmful effects.
Those who study loneliness typically subscribe to one of two potential explanations for why it is so detrimental, says Dr. Lisa Jaremka, assistant professor of brain sciences at the University of Delaware, and a co-author with Fagundes of the 2017 Health Psychology study.
The first is that loneliness is a source of stress, and stress is known to have a wide range of negative health consequences, including high blood pressure, sleeplessness, indigestion and poor dietary habits.
But Jaremka belongs to a second camp that suspects there is more to it. She feels that as human beings who are totally dependent on the oxygen we breathe to maintain our life, we are just as dependant on healthy thriving relationships.
Without oxygen we die in 20 minutes. Without robust relationships we slowly die of a myriad of diseases as our health slowly degenerates.
To prove this theory, researchers are focusing on the impact of loneliness on immune response, particularly its role in chronic inflammation. Unlike acute inflammation, which people may experience as swelling and redness when they get a cut or are exposed to an allergen, chronic inflammation does not necessarily produce obvious symptoms, but signs of it can be detected by blood tests. (Inflammatory molecules circulate throughout the body, including the brain.)
Chronic inflammation is “one of the major fertilizers” for many of the illnesses associated with loneliness, including heart disease, cancer and neurodegenerative disease, says Dr. Steve Cole, a genomic researcher at the University of California Las Angeles.
So what role does loneliness play in chronic inflammation?
To understand how immune systems function, first consider two of the major kinds of pathogens: viruses and bacteria. Viruses spend much of their life cycle within a host’s own cells, and tend to be transmitted from person to person. As such they are intrinsically social pathogens.
Bacteria, by comparison, are generally not as social. Certain kinds may thrive in dirt or in the environment, for instance and may not pose a threat unless they get into a wound.
Because viruses and bacteria behave differently, we need at least two different immune responses to fight them off—an inflammatory response that is good for fighting bacteria, and an anti-viral response that is good to fend off viruses. However, our bodies are not equipped to fight off both these organisms at the same time.
Social species, such as humans and primates, appear to have developed a stronger antiviral response by default, meaning our immune systems are usually on the defense against viruses. That is because we are much more likely to catch a virus from someone in our social circle than we are to have some infectious bacteria enter our bodies through our skin.
But when faced with a fight-or-flight experience, the immune system temporarily redirects its resources away from fighting viruses to brace for a bacterial infection.
Loneliness can trigger the same response because if you are alone, you are much more vulnerable. Think of our ancient ancestors, much more likely to be attacked if alone than if they were within a group. Their bodies preparing themselves for physical attacks that could cause wounding, inflammation and bacteria attacking the skin after it is split open by weapons.
In 2007, Cole and his team set out to prove this theory. They found distinct differences in the gene expression in the white cells of lonely people, compared with non-lonely people. Rather than being in the default anti-viral stance, the immune systems of lonely people appeared to be tipped in favour of producing inflammation.
High levels of inflammation in chronically lonely people have led some researchers to wonder whether anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, or turmeric could block the harmful effects of loneliness. This may explain why many studies have shown that people who take turmeric daily have a 45 per cent lower risk of getting cancer.
On the other hand, using drugs like ibuprofen, or naproxen on a daily basis can cause bleeding ulcers in the esophagus, stomach and intestines. But even if you take the drugs or turmeric, you are just treating the symptom. It’s the loneliness that must be eradicated because as long as you are lonely you will continue to have high degrees of inflammation in your body.
On the other hand, loneliness can be a positive thing that motivates people to develop social contacts. In the same way that the pain of a burn motivates people to move away from a hot flame.
Human beings need to maintain social connections for child-rearing, for education, to earn a living and so on. However, as you age and have no need for any of these functions, and especially after you lose a spouse, you lose most of your social interactions and all you are left with may be loneliness and with that impending disease.
I have always encouraged people to be proactive about their health and by the same token you must be proactive about your loneliness. Many days you are much happier to be alone and concentrate on your hobbies or just watch movies on Netflix. However, when you feel in need of social contact, when you need some intellectual stimulation, go out there and get it. Call a friend. Make a date. Get out there. It’s just another way of maintaining your good health.