How is Loneliness Affecting Your Health?

A 50-Year study into the health of the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania has sparked ongoing investigation into how loneliness affects health. "Lonely people are more at risk of [developing disease] than people who smoke or don’t exercise.” says Dr. Lissa Rankin, MD, and new research is supporting this claim. New research has linked loneliness with higher blood levels of cortisol, the body's stress hormone, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, chronic pain, and now early onset dementia and death.  

Lonely people are more at risk of [developing disease] than people who smoke or don’t exercise.
— Dr. Lissa Rankin, MD - Founder of Whole Health Medicine Institute; Bestselling Author

Loneliness, research has shown, is as dangerous as smoking or obesity; carving years off the lives of older adults by as much as 14%, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and supported by the National Institute of Health. According to researchers, loneliness - a feeling of "perceived social isolation" - causes a process known as conserved transcriptional response to adversity, or CTRA. This is a process by which genes that regulate the production of white blood cells (our immune cells) are turned down, while genes responsible for the inflammatory response are turned up, leading to damage within the the cells. This deadly combination results in the lessened ability to fight infections while destroying cellular resilience internally, a process that happens over time with few symptoms. Even more alarming, CTRA and loneliness have a reciprocal relationship; loneliness can cause CTRA gene expression more than a year later, and CTRA gene expression can cause loneliness more than a year later in a perpetuating domino effect. While the reason for this reciprocal relationship is not understood, it is clear that it creates a downward spiral to one's health over time. 

University of Chicago social neuroscientist, John Cacioppo explains that loneliness is every bit as real as thirst, hunger, and physical pain. "For a social species, to be on the edge of the social perimeter is to be in a dangerous position," he explains. "The brain goes into a self-preservation state that brings with it a lot of unwanted effects." His research compiles several years of study of loneliness. He has shown, over the years, that the lonely brain is structurally and biochemically different from the non-lonely brain. These differences tend to further exacerbate the problem, as shown by this newest research study. 

One of the major differences of the lonely brain is the diminished way it processes positive stimuli. Positive images, such as spending time with family and friends, don't register in the lonely brain the way they do in the non-lonely brain. The ability to determine what others are thinking - known as "mentalization" - is also diminished in the lonely brain. Dr. Cacioppo believes this to be a "self-preservation" mechanism, protecting one's self against social rejection. This is better understood in light of research conducted in 2003  at the University of California and Purdue University, which found that social rejection and physical pain activates the same parts of the brain; the brain doesn't know the difference.

Loneliness is a common feeling for most people at some point in their life. Whether it's the loneliness of leaving home to go to college, a child moving away, or the death of a loved one, most people feel lonely temporarily when their social setting changes. Whatever the cause of loneliness, we now understand better than ever, the deleterious effects of being lonely. The significant changes to the brain and body of those suffering from loneliness causes a rippling effect of additional health problems.