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.
Search the web and you will find that such studies about the impact of isolation and loneliness on the body abound, and most point to the importance of perceived loneliness rather than specifics about actual social interaction. Most of us have had at least some experience with feeling lonely even while in a crowd. You can’t gauge loneliness by how many people with whom you surround yourself.
How many “friends” do you have on Facebook and other online networking platforms? Do these people meet your need for companionship? The social networking available online can help ease the sense of isolation, especially for people with mobility problems, but only to a point.
Getting out of the house and into social situations can help us to feel like active participants in the world, but it is still not enough. What we need, and what is increasingly lacking, is face time with people we feel comfortable with, people we trust, people with whom we can let our hair down and be ourselves. In my book, face time means turning off the trappings of technological distractions. No texting while visiting, please.
When I was raising young children as an “at home mom,” my life was the perfect storm for isolation and loneliness. Most mothers in my neighborhood were working and I lived 1,000 miles away from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other assorted family members who would otherwise enrich my daily life.
Fortunately, I made a couple of friends who, although we now are also geographically separated, remain part of my most cherished memories of that period.
One was a fellow at home mom. Living in the same neighborhood, we saw each other often, but set aside some “coffee time” every other week or so, alternating in each other’s homes. While our children played, we sipped coffee and shared our lives, our hopes, and our dreams. Our simple cup of coffee generally lasted two or three hours.
The other was a working mom, a teacher, who every so often would drop by for afternoon tea before going home to prepare dinner for her family. The children played while we laughed and cried and supported one another through all manner of good times and bad. Sometimes talk was serious, sometimes silly. Always enriching.
Those associations have remained with me as some of the most valuable friendships of my life because I knew that I could (and still can) count on these women for support and mutual respect. I didn’t need a lot of friends to stave off the feeling of isolation, just a few solid friendships. There was no way that I could have felt the pang of loneliness while these women were in my close circle, and it did us all a world of good.
It always comes back to that old mind/body connection. We all need to feel part of something meaningful, and we owe it to ourselves to make an effort to connect and reconnect with our fellow human beings. Our health and well-being depends on it.