Loneliness is linked to brain inflammation and premature death. Unlike other illnesses where there are clear symptoms, loneliness can go undetected. It is estimated that 60 million Americans suffer from loneliness and seniors are at highest risk.
Research has shown that loneliness is linked with negative health outcomes, such as increasing the risk for obesity. Experts agree that loneliness is a serious health concern and requires as much attention as exercise, diet or sleep. Furthermore, the pain felt by loneliness is as real as being hungry or thirsty. John Cacioppa, Ph.D., from the University of Chicago said, “For a social species, to be on the edge of the social perimeter is to be in a dangerous position. The brain goes into a self-preservation state that brings with it a lot of unwanted effects.”
Loneliness can increase brain inflammation, premature death risk
Recent findings suggest that loneliness can increase brain inflammation and raise the risk of premature death by 14 percent. The study examined loneliness in humans and rhesus macaques – a highly sociable primate.
Previous research revealed a phenomenon called conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA). This is a response where there is an increase in gene expression involved in inflammation and a decrease gene expression in antiviral response. Essentially, lonely people have weaker immune responses and higher levels of inflammation.
For the study researchers examined the gene expression of leukocytes, which are involved in protecting the body against bacteria. In lonely humans and macaques, CTRA was shown but something new occurred as well.
Researchers found that loneliness predicted future CTRA gene expression. Then they found the cellular processes that link social experience to CTRA gene expression. Lastly, researchers found that the monocyte-related CTRA shift had negative consequences on health, revealing immunodeficiency virus in the monkeys.
The findings support that loneliness triggers a fight or flight response in the body, which impairs health over time.
How loneliness affects the immune system and causes chronic inflammation
Other studies found that lonely individuals have higher levels of latent herpes virus reactivation and inflammation-related proteins in response to acute stress. Inflammation is associated with a number of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and functional decline over time.
Lisa Jaremka, Ph.D., lead author of the research, said, “It is clear from previous research that poor-quality relationships are linked to a number of health problems, including premature mortality and all sorts of other very serious health conditions. And people who are lonely clearly feel like they are in poor-quality relationships.”
Jaremka added: “One reason this type of research is important is to understand how loneliness and relationships broadly affect health. The more we understand about the process, the more potential there is to counter those negative effects – to perhaps intervene. If we don’t know the physiological processes, what are we going to do to change them?”
Jaremka’s research revealed that lonely individuals have higher levels of antibodies against cytomegalovirus compared to those who are less lonely, and higher antibodies translates to more pain, depression and fatigue symptoms.
Jaremka added, “We saw consistency in the sense that more lonely people in both studies had more inflammation than less lonely people. It’s also important to remember the flip side, which is that people who feel very socially connected are experiencing more positive outcomes.”
Other effects of loneliness on your health
Research has shown that loneliness can increase inflammation, but it can have other negative health effects as well. Here are other health consequences that result from loneliness.
- It disrupts sleep.
- It increases physical pain.
- It contributes to poor nutrition – lonely people make worse nutritional choices, thus eating foods that are not healthy.
- It increases the risk of dementia – research has shown that those who live alone or reported being alone (not having friends and family around) were at an increased risk of developing dementia.
- It can break your heart, literally – research has shown in lonely people tissue damage of the heart can occur, which leads to heart disease or cancer.
- It increases stress.
- It weakens your immune system and ability to fight off illness.
- It raises blood pressure, which can lead to further cardiovascular complications.
Treating and preventing loneliness
The lead researcher from the newest findings, John Cacioppa, came up with useful tips to help prevent and treat loneliness, including:
- Recognize that loneliness is a problem that needs attention.
- Understand the emotional and physical effects of loneliness.
- Consider volunteering or partaking in community service.
- Develop quality relationships with people you have things in common with.
- Expect the best – lonely people often expect the worse, which can further their loneliness.
Other effective tips to prevent and treat loneliness include:
- Smile, even if you don’t have a reason to – smiling makes you inviting and “fake it until you make it” actually works.
- Invite people over.
- Call someone on the phone.
- Learn to use computers as they can be a good way to keep in touch with others.
- Get involved in your community.
- Schedule upcoming events so you have something to look forward to.
- If people don’t come to you, get out and about and go meet people.
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