Can loneliness hurt your health? And what defines loneliness?
Even as modern technology increases our access to other people, our intimate relationships are becoming more scarce. Families are smaller and relatives don’t always live in close proximity anymore. More people work from home, and busy schedules and “to do” lists keep us from connecting in a meaningful way.
That same modern technology that permits us to easily connect with people from all over the world also tends to get in the way of time spent in real face-to-face relationships. Our inborn desire for intimate relationships with other human beings is, for many of us, not being met.
I recently happened across an article reporting on a University of Chicago study that says that long-term loneliness can be a risk factor for hypertension in people aged 50 and older, even when depression and stress are factored out. The study also took other risk factors, like body-mass index, smoking, alcohol use, and demographic differences, into account. Researchers concluded that loneliness is a unique health-risk factor in its own right.
A 2007 article in Medical News Today links the risk of developing Alzheimer’s in old age to social isolation — feeling disconnected from a social environment and close relationships and a general feeling of abandonment. This feeling of loneliness can happen even when one has many social contacts, and increase with age as our circle of friends and family gets smaller after retirement, death of loved ones, and loss of mobility. Researchers found that loneliness was linked to lower levels of cognitive function as well as more rapid decline of function. People who identified themselves as lonely experienced double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s than those who described themselves as least lonely. Notably, actual physical isolation was less important than perceived isolation.
Studies indicate that a sense of isolation disrupts not only will power and perseverance, but key cellular processes deep within the human body. So said a 2008 article on Psychcentral.com. The article goes on to say that chronic loneliness belongs among risk factors such as smoking, obesity, or lack of exercise, and feeling a sense of social connection is vital to mental well-being and physical health.
A 2008 article by USA Today suggested that the pain of loneliness is less about being alone than about feeling alone. Loneliness is a biological process and the effects of this feeling of loneliness can take a physical toll. The mind/body connection is a powerful one.
Loneliness can hamper the immune system, reported WebMD in 2005. A study of college freshmen showed that social isolation can have a stressful impact on the immune system.