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The Health Risks of Loneliness

A recent study at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, found that people who are lonely are more disposed to developing chronic inflammation — and the diseases it can cause, such as cardiovascular illness and cancer — than the more outgoing among us. In fact, loneliness was shown to have as great an impact on mortality rates as that of alcohol use and even smoking. According to a separate study that took place at the University of California, Los Angeles, certain genes are regulated differently in lonely people than they are in the extroverted, which could help explain the other researchers' findings.

We all have a few acquaintances who are clearly lonely people, with no significant other, a small number of friends, and a limited social calendar.  Now it seems that their solitary lives may lead to more than just loneliness; they may actually increase their chance of developing life-threatening illnesses.

A recent study at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, found that people who are lonely are more disposed to developing chronic inflammation — and the diseases it can cause, such as cardiovascular illness and cancer — than the more outgoing among us.1  In fact, loneliness was shown to have as great an impact on mortality rates as that of alcohol use and even smoking.

The researchers analyzed 148 earlier studies that involved approximately 300,000 subjects over an average period of more than seven years.  Even when taking into consideration age and pre-existing health issues, sociable individuals had a 50 percent higher chance of surviving the span of the study than did lonely people.

According to a separate study that took place at the University of California, Los Angeles, certain genes are regulated differently in lonely people than they are in the extroverted,2 which could help explain the other researchers’ findings.  The scientists at UCLA took white blood cell samples from populations of lonely and sociable people.  They measured the activity levels of numerous genes and found that genes involved in protecting against viral infections are less active in the lonely, while those genes responsible for fighting off bacteria are more active. In fact, Jon Barron discussed in some detail the neuropeptide/immune system connection by which your body translates loneliness and depression into a weakened immune system in his book Lesson from the Miracle Doctors in the chapter titled, appropriately: The Thought that Kills.

And now it seems that this same connection accounts for systemic inflammation.  Inflammation is typically a bodily response to bacterial infection, so when loneliness becomes a chronic condition, those overactive genes in the white blood cells increase their activity level.  It is the loneliness that keeps perpetuating this cycle and causing the bodies of the lonely to jump into potential bacteria-fighting action and therefore put tissues in a state of perpetual inflammation, opening the door to a host of illnesses.

Unfortunately, if earlier research is to be believed, there may not be much we can do to alleviate loneliness.  And it’s not only those who are usually by themselves who experience loneliness.  A 2009 study conducted by scientists at the University of Chicago, the University of California, San Diego, and Harvard University, reviewed loneliness data completed by about 5,000 participants in the Framingham Heart Study.3  Every few years over a six-year period, the volunteers answered questions about how often they felt lonely.  Participants who said they never felt lonely typically saw four social contacts weekly, while those who felt lonely five or more days every week had social interaction with an average of 3.4 people — only slightly fewer than the non-lonely subjects.  Having extra friends didn’t help much — each additional friend only reduced loneliness by 0.04 days a week, or two days a year. And having 8,000 “really close” friends on Facebook doesn’t seem to help either when it comes to alleviating loneliness.

Even worse, those who started out not reporting loneliness were more likely to become lonely after spending time with lonely friends or family.  The research found that the family members and friends of subjects who reported loneliness had a 52 percent increased likelihood of reporting loneliness themselves two years later.  The closer a subject was to a lonely person, the greater the likelihood that the subject also would become lonely. In other words, it appears that loneliness is contagious. Or as the Buddah once said to his student Ananda who asked him, ‘Master, is it true that half the battle is one’s associations?”

“No, Ananda, this is incorrect, it is the whole battle.”

So what can you do if you or one of your loved ones is predisposed to loneliness and all of its subsequent health risks? 

Often not much! Loneliness and its close cousin depression can be like a vicious self-reinforcing whirlpool that draws its victims relentlessly down. And it is here that Jon Barron’s Baseline of Health Program makes a world of sense. If someone is deep in a loneliness/depression downward spiral, telling them a few jokes and inviting them to party is not going to help. They need to do everything, and they need to do it all at once. They need to make dietary and supplement changes that reinforce the body’s natural sense of well being. When the body feels good, you feel good; the body and mind are connected. They need to exercise since exercise releases “feel good” endorphins. And they need to turn their thoughts around. And for this, as Jon talks about in Miracle Doctors, there’s everything from meditation to affirmation to visualization to taking an herbal break.  Or if all else fails, you might just hang onto what Henry Rollins, the American singer/songwriter/celebrity once said: “Loneliness adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better.”

 

1 Holt-Lunstad, Julianne; Smith, Timothy B.; Layton, J. Bradley. “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review.” PLoS Medicine. July 2010.  Public Library of Science. 12 May 2011. <http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1000316>.

2 Cole, Steve W.; Hawkley, Louise C.; Arevalo, Jesusa M.; Sung, Caroline Y., Rose, Robert M.; Cacioppo, John T. “Social Regulation of Gene Expression in Human Leukocytes.” Genome Biology. 13 September 2007.  National Center for Biotechnology Information. 13 May 2011. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2375027/>.

3 Cacioppo, John T.; Fowler, James H.; Christakis, Nicholas A. “Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. December 2009.  American Psychological Association. 13 May 2011. <http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/97/6/977/>.

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