A Disease Called Loneliness

Health Effects of Loneliness

A Disease Called Loneliness - Health Effects of Loneliness

A recent number of papers published by John Cacioppo, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, and colleagues suggests that chronic loneliness can cause unhealthy changes in the cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems, and that the subjective experience of loneliness—how one perceives loneliness—is a lot more indicative of physical health than the actual number of social contacts a person has. “Some people are socially isolated and they’re not lonely,” states Daniel Russell, a psychologist at Iowa State University in Ames. Russell helped develop the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a questionnaire that tries to measure how people perceive their social situation. Cacioppo and colleagues have found that when people score high on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, they also exhibit a number of physiological changes such as tightened arteries that raises blood pressure, forcing the heart to work harder, and elevated levels of stress. These findings indicate that the sympathetic nervous system—the “fight or flight response”—is activated during times of loneliness, which makes evolutionary sense to Cacioppo who argues that for our ancestors, being alone meant leaving the protection of the group. There is also evidence that loneliness can directly affect the immune system. In 2007 Cacioppo and UCLA genomics researcher Steve Cole found that lonely people exhibited increased activity in several genes that encourage inflammation, and decreased activity in genes that defend against viruses supporting the idea that socially isolated people are more susceptible to illnesses. While Cacioppo has found evidence that suggests loneliness is partly inherited, he also believes that there is a sort of “genetic thermostat” of loneliness that measures differently in different people. “You’re not inheriting loneliness; you’re inheriting how painful it feels to be alone,” Cacioppo says. In order to prevent loneliness, Cacioppo suggests that people become aware of where their own thermostat is set, and to try and stay in their comfort zone: “The degree of social connection that can improve our health and our happiness…is both as simple and as difficult as being open and available to others.”

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