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MindBody Medicine

The Health Costs of Loneliness

"Lonesome's a bad place to get crowded into," wrote author and beat poet Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972). Feelings of isolation and loneliness have negative health effects — even if people seem objectively to be "in a crowd." There is strong, extensive evidence from scientific studies showing that being isolated or feeling lonely are potent but little understood risk factors for both chronic illness and death, according to John T. Cacioppo, Director of the Institute for Mind and Biology at the University of Chicago.1

Dr. Cacioppo reports that feelings of isolation and loneliness increase stress reactions in the body, including inflammation in the walls of blood vessels (which restricts the free flow of blood by creating resistance) and impaired immune response (making people less able to fight disease). Socially disconnected people are also more prone to “arterial stiffening,” leading to hypertension (increased blood pressure), which is a risk factor for heart disease. In addition, their wounds heal more slowly and their sleep — a vital restorative function — is less efficient. These effects worsen as people age.

The research also suggests that one's personal (subjective) experiences of social isolation are more significant than what others may perceive as objective reality. In other words, even if people think of you as "the life of the party," if you feel lonely and isolated, your health may suffer. A large review of several studies (meta-analysis) concluded that people who perceived that they were socially connected and supported (i.e. did not feel lonely) had lower blood pressure levels, greater activity of natural immune system "killer cells" protecting them from disease, and lower levels of stress hormones than people who did not report these feelings.

When correlated with disease, less lonely people survived longer after coronary bypass surgery, even when other factors contributing to mortality were controlled. And loneliness measured prior to mammogram screening was higher in women later diagnosed with breast cancer relative to women who were found to be disease-free.

So if you feel lonely, even in a crowd, try to relate to family and with honesty, love and forgiveness. Your body will thank you!

1 Cacioppo JT, Hawkley LC. Social isolation and health, with an emphasis on underlying mechanisms. Perspect Biol Med. 2003;46(3 Suppl):S39-52.

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