Perceived social isolation ie 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.
After years of research and personal investigation, Julianne Holt-Lunstad (professor of Brigham Young University) believes that we can’t consider mental health and physical well being as two different things. She concluded upon finding that isolation and loneliness not only impacts mental health but actually damages physical health (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2015). According to her –
Loneliness has 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.
These facts really shocked me! But, there is more to it.
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
- 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 inflammation response to heal the wound. But, unusual inflammatory responses (which happens 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, weaken the immune system and DNA in cells..
Hence, lonely people are highly prone to bacterial and viral infections as well as vulnerable to attack from within by their own immune system.
Cole explains that in lonely people a pattern of altered immunology is observed and it appears as a defensive reaction mounted by the body in case you are going to be wounded in the future. It means the human body perceives loneliness as a threat. If we are feeling lonely and helpless with no one to talk to or seek support, our body starts a defense mechanism assuming a chance of wound or infection. This was a natural survival tactic once upon a time but killing us in this digital world.
This is one of the reasonable biological explanations for why people with loneliness suffer from different other health problems.
Cole considers loneliness as a silent epidemic. Because it turned out to be a larger risk factor for disease than other things like anxiety or depression. He says –
“There is a huge hidden epidemic of loneliness and disenfranchisement from the human race.”
Are you at risk of chronic loneliness?
Anyone can suffer from chronic loneliness. Society assumes that it’s always those who are introverted or unmarried women or men at high risk of loneliness. Even extroverted individuals or Type A personalities and party animals are highly likely to suffer from chronic loneliness.