Loneliness has evolved from a favorite topic of angsty teens to a serious public health crisis. Long thought of as a temporary state of mind, loneliness--broadly defined as “the distress people feel when reality fails to meet their ideal of social relationships”--now outstrips obesity as a predictor of early death.
In the 1980s, 20% of adults reported feelings of loneliness. Today that number stands at 40%. While the emotional toll of social isolation is widely understood, researchers have only recently begun to explore its physical repercussions. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, loneliness affects the body just as much as obesity and smoking. It has been linked to functional and cognitive decline, vascular impairment, and weakened immune systems.
In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 141 elderly people filled out a questionnaire that assessed their levels of social isolation. Researchers then analyzed how the expression of more than 400 immune system genes corresponded to the participants’ self-reported loneliness. They found that in the 26% of individuals who identified as lonely, the genes responsible for inflammation were more active, whereas the genes that defend against viruses were depressed.
According to researchers at the University of Chicago, chronic loneliness is associated with elevated levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone that causes inflammation. While acute inflammation in itself isn’t bad, chronic inflammation is linked to heart disease, depression, and cancer. Evolution plays a large hand in this: social isolation was a huge risk at a time when survival depended on cooperation and communication. This shaped the primitive brain to desire interaction just like it desired food or water.
Functional and cognitive decline that results from loneliness contributes to the stress that causes inflammation. A 2012 study used data from a large national survey to analyze the relationship between self-reported loneliness and health outcomes in people older than 60. Of the 1,604 participants, 43% reported feelings of loneliness. These individuals had significantly higher rates of declining mobility, difficulty performing routine activities, and death during six years of follow-up. The association between loneliness and mortality remained significant even after adjusting for age, economic status, depression, and other health problems.
“Building social connection is one of the most powerful steps we can take to strengthen our communities and our country,” says U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. A strong social network decreases our risk of depression and anxiety and increases survival from heart attacks and cancer. Positive increases in social relationships are linked to improvements in physiological biomarkers like blood pressure and body mass index. The importance of robust social connections to public health, then, cannot be overstated.
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