It seems every day now we see new scientific evidence linking loneliness and our health. In this article we see it go all the way to the genetic and antibody level. When will this become a public health issue we address globally, if not in the US? Read on below:
“In public health, we talk all the time about obesity and smoking and have all these interventions, but not about people who are lonely and socially isolated,” said Kerstin Gerst Emerson, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Gerontology. “There are really tangible, terrible outcomes. Lonely people are dying, they’re less healthy, and they are costing our society more.”
Psychologist Steve Cole, who studies how social environments affect gene expression, says researchers have known for years that lonely people are at greater risk for heart attacks, metastatic cancer, Alzheimer’s and other ills. “But we haven’t understood why,” he said.
Then last year, Cole and his colleagues at the UCLA School of Medicine, along with collaborators at the University of California at Davis and the University of Chicago, uncovered complex immune system responses at work in lonely people.
They found that social isolation turned up the activity of genes responsible for inflammation and turned down the activity of genes that produce antibodies to fight infection.
The abnormalities were discovered in monocytes, a type of white blood cell, produced in the bone marrow, that is dramatically changed in people who are socially isolated. Monocytes play a special immunological role and are one of the body’s first lines of defense against infection. However, immature monocytes cause inflammation and reduce antibody protection. And they are what proliferates in the blood of lonely people.
Such cellular changes, says University of Chicago social neuroscientist John Cacioppo, are a byproduct of human evolution.
Early on, when survival depended crucially on cooperation and communication, social isolation was a huge risk. So evolution shaped the primitive human brain to desire and need social interaction in the same way it shaped the brain to desire and need food.
The pain of loneliness is like the pain of hunger — it’s a biological signal that something is wrong.
“When you get hungry you may not be aware your blood sugar level is dropping, but if you’re driving and you see the golden arches [of McDonald’s],” you’ll pull in for food, Cacioppo said.
Today, social isolation is often an unavoidable lifestyle. But it puts the body, on the cellular level, on constant alert for a threat. That helps explain why lonely people are more likely to act negatively toward others, which makes it that much harder for them to forge relationships.
“I do see these patients all the time,” said psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds, who has a private practice in Cambridge, Mass., and has co-written two books on the subject. “Many of the people who end up lonely give off signals they want to be alone out of anxiety. . . . Feeling left out has a huge effect on our psyche from our evolutionary worries that everyone else will survive and we won’t.”
The most broadly accepted definition of loneliness is the distress people feel when reality fails to meet their ideal of social relationships. Loneliness is not synonymous with being alone. Many people live solitary lives but are not lonely. Conversely, being surrounded by others is no guarantee against loneliness.
Loneliness is also not the same as depression, though the two often go hand in hand. The first, related to the drive to belong, is motivational. The other, a more general feeling of sadness or hopelessness, is not.
Lundquist is “shocked that there isn’t more conversation” about social isolation within public-health circles. “Loneliness is a brutal issue.”