Loneliness is bad for your health

Two University of Chicago psychologists, Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo, have been trying to disentangle social isolation, loneliness, and the physical deterioration and diseases of aging, right down to the cellular level.

The researchers suspected that while the toll of loneliness may be mild and unremarkable in early life, it accumulates with time. To test this idea, the scientists studied a group of college-age individuals and continued an annual study of a group of people who joined when they were between 50 and 68 years old.

Their findings, reported in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, are revealing. Consider stress, for example. The more years you live, the more stressful experiences you are going to have: new jobs, marriage and divorce, parenting, financial worries, illness. It’s inevitable.

However, when the psychologists looked at the lives of the middle-aged and old people in their study, they found that although the lonely ones reported the same number of stressful life events, they identified more sources of chronic stress and recalled more childhood adversity. Moreover, they differed in how they perceived their life experiences. Even when faced with similar challenges, the lonelier people appeared more helpless and threatened. And ironically, they were less apt to actively seek help when they are stressed out.

Hawkley and Cacioppo then took urine samples from both the lonely and the more contented volunteers, and found that the lonely ones had more of the hormone epinephrine flowing in their bodies. Epinephrine is one of the body’s “fight or flight” chemicals, and high levels indicate that lonely people go through life in a heightened state of arousal. As with blood pressure, this physiological toll likely becomes more apparent with aging. Since the body’s stress hormones are intricately involved in fighting inflammation and infection, it appears that loneliness contributes to the wear and tear of aging through this pathway as well.

There is more bad news. When we experience the depletion caused by stress, our bodies normally rely on restorative processes like sleep to shore us up. But when the researchers monitored the younger volunteers’ sleep, they found that the lonely nights were disturbed by many “micro awakenings.” That is, they appeared to sleep as much as the normal volunteers, but their sleep was of poorer quality. Not surprisingly, the lonelier people reported more daytime dysfunction. Since sleep tends to deteriorate with age anyway, the added hit from loneliness is probably compromising this natural restoration process even more.

Loneliness is not the same as solitude. Some people are just fine with being alone, and some even see solitude as an important path to spiritual growth. But for many, social isolation and physical aging make for a toxic cocktail.

Source:  Association for Psychological Science 


9 thoughts on “Loneliness is bad for your health

  1. I certainly agree with your article. We must help ourselves to find ways and means to see things in a different light.

    More power to your blogsite.


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  3. Very interesting. I especially like when you mention the difference between solitude and loneliness. Everything depends on the way you end up with the situation, you choose it or are left alone.

  4. trugiaz

    One thing to be asked about the last paragraph, does by changing our mental thinking from being ” feeling lonely” to “need to be alone” or in need of solitude would actually increase our quality of life?

  5. It would seem that, if measured in part by the increasing use of antidepressants and teen suicides… that loneliness is a disease of our time; one that war will only serve to increase. It is also a measure, I propose, of our experience of separation from nature, from the source of our being. How to deepen our access to the resource of that then becomes a primary question.

    David Bohm spoke eloquently of this when he wrote:

    For fragmentation is now very widespread, not only throughout society, but also in each individual; and this is leading to a kind of general confusion of the mind, which creates an endless series of problems and interferes with our clarity of perception so seriously as to prevent us from being able to solve most of them… The notion that all these fragments are separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion.

  6. Pingback: Presence — and What the Aspen Knows « wild resiliency!

  7. mentalimaging

    This research does not take into account the stigma society puts on so-called lonely people or people who live alone. In American culture the word loner is invariably associated with serial killers and other undesirable, criminally inclined people. One of the worst things you can be called is a loner or to be perceived by others as being lonely. There is little to no support on any level of society for people who are naturally introverts or for those who prefer solitude over the company of others. How can you feel good about who you are when just living alone makes you suspicious. I had a conversation recently with a man who was talking to me about another man in a derogatory way and ended with “well, he’s 45, never married and lives alone, what can you expect?” On another occasion I was talking to a professional woman who was divorced and had lived alone for many years who went on and on about how many friends she had and the zillion things she was involved in, thus assuring me that she was never “lonely.” If you go on any internet dating site and read the profiles I guarantee you will never find anyone admitting that they are lonely. This is going to become an even bigger problem into the future because there are more and more people all over the world living alone. The best book I have read on living alone with dignity (and there are very, very few books on this) is “The Stations of Solitude” by Alice Koller.

    In regard to a previous post – Loneliness is not a disease !!!

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