Obesity may be touted as America’s most pressing health crisis, but loneliness is twice as deadly as carrying around excess weight, according to prominent University of Chicago psychologist, John Cacioppo.
Being lonely negatively affects a person’s physical wellbeing nearly as much as being poor, Cacioppo pointed out during a recent presentation at the 2014 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After analyzing the survey responses of over 2,100 adults age 55 and over, he and his research team concluded that lacking close personal connections raises an individual’s premature death risk by 14 percent, compared to the 19 percent increased death risk that accompanies financial insecurity.
“We think of loneliness as a sad condition but, for a social species, being on the social perimeter is not only sad—it’s dangerous,” claims Cacioppo in a talk at the 2013 TEDxDesMoines Conference.
From an evolutionary standpoint, these findings make sense. For millennia, the human race relied on the collective intelligence and strength of a group to defend against predators and forage for food. Thus, just as low blood sugar triggers a hunger response and tissue damage triggers a pain response, so too does loneliness trigger an unconscious biochemical response that compels us to sate our “hunger” for human connection.
“The pain and averseness of loneliness, of feeling isolated from those around you is also part of a biological early warning machinery to alert you to threats and damage to your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper,” Cacioppo says.
Loneliness elevates blood pressure, increases the immune system’s inflammatory response, interrupts sleep, raises morning levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and promotes symptoms of depression. Because it’s harder to alleviate feelings of isolation, this response can cause real, lasting physical damage.
The stigma of loneliness
For most people, there’s no shame in saying ‘I’m hungry,’ or ‘Ouch, that hurt,’ but there is a bias attached to admitting to loneliness. “You don’t hear people talking about feeling lonely,” Cacioppo says. “That’s because loneliness is stigmatized—it’s the biological equivalent of being a loser in life or a weak person.”
But if it were true that everyone who feels lonely is a loser, then a significant portion of our society would be considered weak. The results of various nationwide surveys indicate that, at any given time, the number of Americans who feel lonely lies somewhere between 25 and 45 percent. But because loneliness is often a taboo topic, most people fail to realize how widespread the issue really is.
Even when isolated individuals do try to re-connect, their efforts are often rendered ineffective due to another biological response—mental hyper-vigilance. This highly-charged state of mind searches for social threats and can cause a person to become defensive, picking apart their interactions with others.
This often subconscious symptom of chronic isolation creates negative social encounters and drives the stake of loneliness even deeper.
3 keys to social connection
In an age when social media sites cause our “friend” count to skyrocket into the thousands it’s important to keep in mind the keys to cultivating true connections with others.
In line with the guidance of the old adage, it’s the quality, not the quantity, of our personal relationships with others that really matter.
Cacioppo and his team pinpointed three essential elements of healthy relationships.
Intimate connectedness: A feeling caused by socializing with people with whom you can be your true self, confident that they will always support you—engaging in a deep discussion with a significant other.
Relational connectedness: In-person interactions that are mutually beneficial to all parties involved—a Sunday morning coffee date with a good friend.
Collective connectedness: Feeling as though one is part of a larger group beyond just one’s individual self—being a member of a local softball team.
Each of these factors plays a role in fending off loneliness and subsequent feelings of depression, but the most important way to prevent unintentional isolation is to recognize when you or someone you love is struggling with unhealthy solitude.
Cacioppo says it’s especially important to be aware of how older family members and friends are faring. “Retiring to Florida to live in a warmer climate among strangers isn’t necessarily a good idea if it means you are disconnected from the people who mean the most to you…People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality.”
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