Study: Loneliness Linked to Adverse Health Effects

It's the weekend for love, but Valentine's Day can leave some feeling awfully lonely.

And they wouldn't be alone. Researchers estimate some 20 to 45 percent of people in the country suffer from loneliness, and it can lead to physical illnesses, including obesity.

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But what about those who like to be by themselves from time to time?

"It's important to distinguish between being alone, and feeling alone," said John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. "People who are with others and feel isolated – you might be at the dinner table with family and friends over the holidays and feel distant from them, or on Valentine's Day with your spouse and feel estranged. So it's not whether you're with someone, it's whether you feel connected to them."

Cacioppo joins us to discuss the public health hazards of loneliness.  

Loneliness as risk factor

Loneliness, or perceived social isolation as it’s called in the study, is a risk factor for chronic illnesses and mortality, and this study shows that loneliness can lead to fight-or-flight responses.

“Our research shows that loneliness can actually change our genes. We each have a genotype, but all the genes aren’t turned on. We find loneliness changes which genes are turned on and off, impacting our immune system,” Cacioppo said during a phone interview Thursday. “Social isolation turns up the activity of genes responsible for inflammation and turned down the activity of genes that produce antibodies to fight infections.”

In September 2013, Cacioppo spoke about the lethality of loneliness at TEDx Des Moines. Watch the video below.

Previous research by the study’s research team showed a link between loneliness and conserved transcriptional response to adversity (or CTRA), which is “characterized by an increased expression of genes involved in inflammation and a decreased expression of genes involved in antiviral responses,” according to a University of Chicago article.

In other words, lonely people experienced more inflammation and weakened immune responses than people who did not experience loneliness.

For the latest study, researchers examined immune system cells that help protect the body against bacteria and viruses. The study involved humans and macaques, and results revealed that both lonely humans and animals had “an increased expression of genes involved in inflammation and a decreased expression of genes involved in antiviral responses,” according to the article.

Researchers also discovered that loneliness predicted future CTRA gene expression more than a year later and vice versa.

The impact of loneliness on white blood cells was also studied. Past research showed that norepinephrine can cause blood stem cells in bone marrow to produce a particular kind of immune cell—“an immature monocyte that shows high levels of inflammatory gene expression and low levels of antiviral gene expression,” according to the University of Chicago article.

“Taken together, these findings support a mechanistic model in which loneliness results in fight-or-flight stress signaling, which increases the production of immature monocytes, leading to up-regulation of inflammatory genes and impaired anti-viral responses,” the article states. “The ‘danger signals’ activated in the brain by loneliness ultimately affect the production of white blood cells. The resulting shift in monocyte output may both propagate loneliness and contribute to its associated health risks.”

Loneliness can be a self-perpetuating problem because “people who end up lonely give off signals they want to be alone out of anxiety,” psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds said in a Washington Post article. “Feeling left out has a huge effect on our psyche from our evolutionary worries that everyone else will survive and we won’t.”

One way to combat loneliness is to volunteer.

“Volunteering is a great way to get out there and interact with others,” Cacioppo said. “It truly feeds your soul.”

While social media makes people feel more connected than ever with hundreds of Facebook friends and thousands of followers on Twitter or Instagram, it could actually cause them to be lonely.

“Social media is not the way to overcome loneliness,” he said. “In many ways social media makes us lonelier, as we sit by ourselves watching others who we believe are happier than us.

“Technology can help us find other people who share our interests, and are likely to be people we could connect well with, whether it’s dating sites or meet-ups in our areas of interest,” he added.  “When it comes to conquering loneliness, it’s quality of relationships, not the quantity that matters.”  

In the video below, Cacioppo talks more about loneliness and how to cope with it.

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