Loneliness could kill you

November 13, 2017 by Gillian Leithman, The Conversation
Studies are showing that loneliness can be deadly, even more so than obesity. Credit: Shutterstock

Independence is glorified in North American culture as a symbol of strength. As a society, we value individual achievement and extol self-reliance.

I am expert on aging and retirement and I also help employees transition from work to retirement by facilitating seminars and workshops in corporate Canada. And I often wonder however if our "go at it alone" attitude has led us down a lonely and isolating path.

Here are some recent stats:

I suspect that these numbers are even higher among the general Canadian population, not just CARP members.

According to science, shortens our lifespan. Twice as much as obesity. Yes, you read that right.

Dr. John Cacioppo, the world's foremost authority on loneliness, maintains that the number of people in your life does not inoculate you from experiencing loneliness. Rather, it's the feeling of being lonely that places the and body at risk.

Cacioppo equates feeling lonely with feeling hungry. We compromise our survival and well-being when either is ignored.

We are biologically hardwired to respond to our environment. When we experience low blood-sugar levels, we crave food. The feeling of our stomachs being empty is a warning sign to eat and it's essential to our very survival.

When we feel lonely, we desire connection with others, much like the loud rumble that your tummy makes when hungry.

A lonely brain is restless

Loneliness triggers "hyper-vigilance." That is your brain is on the lookout for social threats, which consequently puts us on the defensive. We become more reactive to negative events and perceive daily hassles as more stressful.

A lonely brain awakens often, experiences fragmented sleep and cannot recover from the day's stressful events.

A lonely brain is also subject to an increase in depressive symptoms and has difficulty self-regulating. That is why you may find yourself irritable and impulsive.

A lonely brain is also at risk of cognitive and physical decline.

A three-year Dutch study followed more than 2,000 participants aged 65 to 86. While none of the participants had signs of dementia at the outset of the study, results revealed that those who reported feeling lonely had a 64 per cent increase in the risk of developing dementia.

People also experience an increase in loneliness when they retire from work. That's why you want to make sure that you're retiring to something, and that you have friends outside of your place of employment.

A lonely body

Loneliness also affects the body. Psychologist Stephen Suomi's research indicates that loneliness distorts the expression of certain genes. An experiment separating newborn primates from their mothers during their first four months of life resulted in the altered development of immunity-related genes that help the body fight viruses.

Social psychologist Lisa Jaremka's research indicates that have higher levels of activated viruses in their system and are at greater risk of suffering from chronic inflammation, which has been linked to Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, heart disease and even suicide.

While obesity increases your odds of an early death by 20 per cent, loneliness increases your odds by 45 per cent.

What are we to do with an emotional state that is so powerful that it can alter our brains, compromise our physiology and cut short our longevity?

The antidote to loneliness

  1. Seek out connection: We all need a tribe!
  2. Stop denying and accept "feeling lonely" as simply a craving for connection.
  3. Acknowledge the consequences of prolonged loneliness. If you ignore hunger, you starve. Same is true of our need for belonging. If you feel lonely, reach out to others.
  4. Recognize that quality relationships are most effective at feeding this void.

We are physiologically and psychologically primed for connection.

The next time you feel lonely and out of sorts, acknowledge it as a signal that you are in need of connection and seek out companionship.

Your body and your brain will be thankful that you did, and you may even increase your longevity.

Explore further: Why it's good to be lonely this Valentine's Day

Related Stories

Why it's good to be lonely this Valentine's Day

February 13, 2014
Whilst it may seem that there are no positives to draw from feeling lonely, several authors have shown that this is not the case.

Lonely students at greater risk of mental health problems, study finds

May 25, 2017
Students who feel lonely are at greater risk of developing mental health problems, according to a new study led by the University of Southampton.

Loneliness in young adults linked to poor sleep quality

May 17, 2017
Researchers from King's College London have found a link between loneliness and poor sleep quality in a study of more than 2,000 British young adults.

Cold symptoms feel worse when people feel lonely

March 30, 2017
Suffering through a cold is annoying enough, but if you're lonely, you're likely to feel even worse, according to Rice University researchers.

Researchers discover neurological link to loneliness

October 25, 2012
Researchers from UCL have found that lonely people have less grey matter in a part of the brain associated with decoding eye gaze and other social cues.

Loneliness contributes to self-centeredness for sake of self-preservation

June 13, 2017
Research conducted over more than a decade indicates that loneliness increases self-centeredness and, to a lesser extent, self-centeredness also increases loneliness.

Recommended for you

Link between hallucinations and dopamine not such a mystery, finds study

February 16, 2018
Researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) found that people with schizophrenia who experience auditory hallucinations tend to hear what they expect, ...

People find comfort listening to the same songs over and over, study finds

February 16, 2018
With the frequency that some people play their favorite song, it's a good thing vinyl records aren't used often because they might wear out.

Ketamine found to reduce bursting in brain area reducing depression quickly

February 15, 2018
A team of researchers at Zhejiang University in China has found that the drug ketamine reduces neuronal bursting in the lateral habenula (LHb) brain region, reducing symptoms of depression in rodent models. In their paper ...

What predicts the quality of children's friendships? Study shows cognition, emotion together play

February 15, 2018
Whether children think their peers' intentions are benign or hostile, and how those children experience and express their own emotions, may influence the quality of their friendships, according to a new study from the University ...

Evidence shows pets can help people with mental health problems

February 15, 2018
The study of 17 research papers by academics at the Universities of Manchester, Southampton and Liverpool, concludes that pets can help people manage their long-term mental health conditions.

Personality: Where does it come from and how does it work?

February 14, 2018
How do our personalities develop? What do we come with and what is built from our experiences? Once developed, how does personality work? These questions have been steeped in controversy for almost as long as psychology has ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.