Everyone’s felt it at some point in their life, but it’s never pleasant. However, loneliness is more than a feeling. When people are deprived of social contact and loneliness begins to settle in, it leads to some startling health consequences.
What would you do without your workout buddy or if you couldn’t lean on your best friends to sort out problems and laugh about the good times? Although we depend on others to lead healthy lifestyles, there’s more to it than that. Studies now show loneliness is a health problem in its own right.
1. High blood pressure
A team of researchers at the University of Chicago wanted to know whether there was a relation between high blood pressure and loneliness, or if it could be explained by other common health problems like obesity, smoking, or other issues.
What was the cause?
After measuring blood pressure in over 200 elderly people for four years, it turned out that depression, smoking, alcohol use, BMI, and demographics didn’t seem to matter – over time, loneliness always resulted in higher blood pressure. Although it’s a bit puzzling, the researchers speculate that loneliness may cause anxiety about making friends and worries about rejection. That means lonely people see social situations as threatening, which may explain the higher blood pressure.
When the body becomes inflamed, it can lead to other health problems, like cardiovascular disease, cancers, and degeneration in the brain. Research at UCLA by genomics researcher Steve Cole, Ph.D. and John Cacioppo, Ph.D. found that when people had been lonely for a long time, their inflammation producing genes were more active while those that stopped inflammation weren’t. Genes that control inflammation are found in white blood cells, which also play an important role in our immune systems. Dr. Cole realized this had interesting implications, and created another study to see how this, and loneliness, affected the immune system.
3. Weak immune system
In his second study, Dr. Cole and Cacioppo found that lonely people’s immune systems worked in a completely different way. Cells in people with healthy relationships focus on fighting off viruses, but when people are lonely cells search through the body looking for damaged tissue. When they find it, they trigger inflammation to prevent infections.
Why do lonely people have different immune responses?
The researchers explain this served an important function way back in the day when we were hunters and gatherers. People who lived in social groups were more at risk for picking up viruses, so the body automatically adapted to fight them off, but those who lived in isolation were more likely to get injured, and hence, develop an infection. In the modern world, this means lonely people are more at risk to viruses as well as the negative effects of chronic inflammation.
4. Cognitive decline
A study of over 8,000 people by the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School that lasted for 12 years found that those who were lonely had a 20 percent faster cognitive decline. New research by the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center also discovered that lonely people might be twice as likely to develop dementia and then Alzheimer’s.
Why does loneliness cause cognitive decline?
Although it’s difficult to explain why loneliness affects cognition, the researchers affirm that people were made to be social, and need to interact with one another to stay healthy. Even today, we need each other to survive.
5. Increased mortality
All of these health problems mean lonely people have higher mortality rates. According to the National Health Service, an analysis of several studies and over 3.4 million people showed that socially isolated people may be 30 percent more likely to have an early death. It seems that making friends is essential in learning how to live a healthy lifestyle.
What makes isolation fatal?
Loneliness is uncomfortable because people were meant to live and work together. From an evolutionary standpoint, being alone for long periods of time is a bit unnatural. Hundreds of years ago, being alone meant you were out of the group and less likely to survive, and it seems that’s still true today. Feeling lonely is our body’s way of warning us about that danger.
When loneliness becomes chronic, your whole worldview starts to change. You feel isolated, unconfident, depressed, worried about how others see you and more self-conscious. Although loneliness causes health problems, it has a relatively simple solution – making meaningful connections.
It might take a little effort, but there are many opportunities to meet others in person or online. The best thing you can do for your health is get involved in a community. Obviously, creating meaningful relationships is an ongoing process, but just take it one step at a time.
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