Extreme loneliness is bad for your health, with chronic social isolation shown to increase the chances of disease and early death. Whether you're a teenager, a retiree, or somewhere in-between, people without healthy social connections are at greater risk of developing inflammation and obesity among other risk factors. Time and time again, studies have shown a connection between a healthy social life and increased physical and psychological health.
According to a new study supported by the National Institutes of Health, loneliness can increase the risk of early death by 14 percent. In a study of 141 older adults, a “feeling of loneliness” was strongly linked to critical physiological responses that result in compromised immune systems and increased cellular inflammation. Loneliness affects the expression of genes through a phenomenon called "conserved transcriptional response to adversity" (CTRA), with this effect decreasing the genetic expression of white blood cells while simultaneously increasing the genetic expression of inflammation.
In the study, loneliness and CTRA were found to have a reciprocal relationship and propel each other over time, with physical health eventually undermined as a result of long-term loneliness. The research team included noted University of Chicago researcher John Cacioppo, who has also studied brain differences between lonely and non-lonely people. In that study, Cacioppo found that the brains of lonely people display a “hyper-vigilance” to perceived social threats, including socially negative words like “alone" and "sad".
According to Cacioppo, our mythic notions of retirement are doing us more harm than good: "We think that retirement means leaving friends and family and buying a place down in Florida where it is warm and living happily ever after. But that’s probably not the best idea... We find people who continue to interact with co-workers after retirement and have friends close by are less lonely...it is true throughout the world... The results were unchanged when you considered their objective social circumstance, for instance whether they were married or lived near family and friends. These didn’t change the association between loneliness and mortality.”
Other studies have come to similar conclusions, with loneliness found to exceed the impact of well-known risk factors such as obesity and smoking. In one study by Holt-Lunstad from 2010, chronic loneliness was found to be just as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social isolation also has a significant negative effect on our mental health, putting us at greater risk of cognitive decline, clinical dementia, and depression disorder.
While most studies into loneliness involve the elderly, new research by the University of North Carolina (UNC) has found that teenage loneliness is just as harmful to health as lack of exercise. According to the study, healthy social relationships helped to buffer daily stressors that can lead to things like heart disease, stroke, and cancer. According to Professor Kathleen Mullan Harris, professor of sociology at UNC, "So when you're socially isolated you don't have that advantage and then your body feels sort of the full impact of the daily stressors that we confront every day... it's not really the quantity [of social relationships] that matters, it's really what those connections mean to their lives."
Image source: Mikkel Bigandt/shutterstock.com