Surprising Ways Loneliness Impacts Our Health and Wellbeing

Surprising Ways Loneliness Impacts

Neurobiologist Richard Smeyne of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia experimented with multiple generations of mice. Initially, they were kept in large enclosures that allowed them to play and grow up with other mice. When they reached adulthood, some of these animals were transferred to a typical shoebox cage, subjecting them to social isolation.

After the month of isolation, the researcher compared the changes in the brain (mainly the sensory cortex). It was found that the overall size of nerve cells, or neurons, shrunk by about 20% and was steady for three months as the mice remained in isolation.

Also, there was broken DNA and a reduction in a protein called BDNF that triggers neural growth. Another 2013 study found that social isolation can lead to depressive-like behavior in mice.

Further research has shown that loneliness is highly toxic to health and the level of toxicity is startling. Social isolation is the strongest social risk factor of loneliness.

Related: 10 Pertinent Facts About Loneliness And How It Effects The Mind And Body

Social Isolation

Perceived social isolation i.e loneliness results in adverse health and fitness consequences at each developmental stage of life. Feeling lonely manifests as poor sleep, depression, impaired executive function, altered hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical activity, accelerated cognitive decline, impaired immunity, unfavorable cardiovascular function, a pro-inflammatory gene expression profile, and earlier mortality.

Cole explains that the feeling of loneliness triggers worry and fear of what will happen in the future, which activates a nervous system that releases stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. These hormones make the heart beat faster and increase blood pressure, activate the immune system, and inflammatory response.  

Studies have revealed that it is related to different chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, lung disease, heart disease, metabolic disease, stroke, hypertension, obesity, and is a predictor of mental health issues.

Related: Dangers Of Over Indulging In Alcohol During Isolation

In fact, it is believed that loneliness has the same effect on our mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

A 2015 meta-review showed that loneliness increases your risk of the chance of dying by 26%. If these results are compared to depression and anxiety, both are known to be associated with a comparable 21% increase in mortality according to a large-scale, population-based study

Related: Safety in Isolation: The Consequences of Being Bullied

These facts really shocked me! But, there is more to it. 

The most terrible poverty is loneliness
Surprising Ways Loneliness Impacts Our Health and Wellbeing

A group of researchers identified that loneliness results in a biological wound by causing damage at a cellular level.  

Loneliness can affect your health in a multitude of ways. Untreated loneliness may lead to :

  • Social  isolation
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Depression
  • Substance use and Alcoholism
  • Anti-social behavior
  • Sleep disorders
  • Type 2 diabetes 
  • Cardiovascular disease and stroke
  • Decreased memory and learning
  • Alzheimer’s disease progression
  • Poor decision making

While there is a bulk of literature available on the impact of loneliness on mental health, there was a lack of understanding of how actually loneliness affects our physical health.  

How feeling lonely causes disease at the cellular level?

Steve Cole and his research team at UCLA conducted a study of 14 participants to investigate the genetic differences and cellular structure of lonely and non-lonely people. People with prolonged periods of loneliness had white blood cells that looked quite different from their normal counterparts.  

When our body cells are in danger or attacked by some foreign substances, Type 1 interferon molecules initiate an antiviral response to protect us. Unfortunately, this mechanism is suppressed in lonely people relative to non-lonely people. 

Genetic analysis revealed that people with loneliness have certain genes activated in their bodies that are responsible for inflammation response, which is not seen in non-lonely participants. 

Now, this is a bad sign! In the case of acute injury, our body naturally triggers an inflammation response to heal the wound. But, unusual inflammatory responses (which happen due to chronic illness) can give birth to chronic diseases like heart diseases, atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. The Inflammatory process acts as fuel for diseases to grow and progress in our body, weakening the immune system and DNA in cells… 

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Louisa Davis

Hi there! I'm just a normal person enjoying the process of life. Practicing Buddhism, I believe in the law of cause and effect. Reading and writing is always a pleasure. I enjoy researching on a range of subjects – science, psychology, and technology. Nothing can satiate my soul than good music, horror movies, psycho-thriller, and crime stuff. I enjoy photography, music and watching comedy videos. Talking to people, learning new experiences, sharing my knowledge through blogs, motivating others are things that I always look forward to.View Author posts