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The Health Effects of Loneliness

“I felt sad, I felt lonely, and I looked for rejection and hostility in my interactions,” said author Dr. Diva Nagula. This excerpt from Dr. Nagula’s book “From Doctor to Patient” illustrates the difficulty of connecting with others after being diagnosed with cancer. After his diagnosis, Dr. Nagula became withdrawn from friends and family. Although he knew he needed social support, every conversation reminded him that he was sick. When encountering a health diagnosis or other traumatic event in your life, it’s natural to push people away. However, this natural response is detrimental to your recovery. How come? Because loneliness creates additional negative health effects and creates a vicious cycle of sickness and unhappiness. 

There are a number of physical and mental health conditions associated with loneliness. In fact, loneliness has been likened to having the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Tate, 2018). Weak social relationships are also as much or more of a risk factor for mortality as alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, and obesity (Holt-Lunstad & Smith, 2010). Current research shows that the following health conditions can be exacerbated by loneliness:

  • Inflammation. In a 2018 meta-analysis of research on over 73,000 people, increased social support and integration was associated with less inflammation in the body. Decreasing inflammation is crucial to your health, as chronic inflammation can lead to many diseases, including cancer (Uchino et al., 2018). 
  • Heart disease and stroke. In a 2016 review of 23 studies including over 181,000 participants, researchers showed that loneliness and isolation were associated with a 29% increase in heart attack risk and 32% increase in stroke risk (Valtorta et al., 2016).  
  • Alzheimer’s disease and cognition. One study found that the loneliest elderly people were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than the least lonely elderly people (Wilson et al., 2007). Relatedly, loneliness is associated with decreased cognitive ability and memory (Tilvis et al., 2004).
  • Mental health disorders. Loneliness contributes to depression, while depression also contributes to loneliness (Cacioppo, 2006a)– another viscous cycle. However, loneliness impacts your mental health in other ways as well. Loneliness has also been proven to increase stress, anxiety, and anger, and decrease optimism and self-confidence (Cacioppo, 2006b).

The first step to addressing loneliness is recognizing that it’s a problem. If you feel lonely or disconnected, you are likely already experiencing effects on your physical and mental health. Once you realize that loneliness is causing more problems for you than that uncomfortable, empty feeling, you may decide it’s time to take action. You can combat loneliness in many ways such as reaching out to old friends, volunteering for a cause, or joining an online or in-person support group. One person who understands loneliness and the associated health effects is Dr. Nagula.  If you are feeling alone in your loneliness, consider reading Dr. Nagula’s new book “From Doctor to Patient.” In this story, Dr. Nagula shares his life-changing journey of healing his mind, body, and spirit, during which he overcame cancer, loneliness, and everything else life threw at him. 

References: 

Cacioppo, J. T., Hughes, M. E., Waite, L. J., Hawkley, L. C., & Thisted, R. A. (2006a). Loneliness as a specific risk factor for depressive symptoms: Cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Psychology and Aging21(1), 140–151. doi: 10.1037/0882-7974.21.1.140

Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Ernst, J. M., Burleson, M., Berntson, G. G., Nouriani, B., & Spiegel, D. (2006b). Loneliness within a nomological net: An evolutionary perspective. Journal of Research in Personality40(6), 1054–1085. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2005.11.007

Holt-Lunstad, J., & Smith, T. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med7(7), 1–20. doi: 10.4016/19911.01

Tate, N. (2018, May 4). Loneliness Rivals Obesity, Smoking as Health Risk. Retrieved December 30, 2019, from https://www.webmd.com/balance/news/20180504/loneliness-rivals-obesity-smoking-as-health-risk.

Tilvis, R. S., Kahonen-Vare, M. H., Jolkkonen, J., Valvanne, J., Pitkala, K. H., & Strandberg, T. E. (2004). Predictors of Cognitive Decline and Mortality of Aged People Over a 10-Year Period. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences59(3). doi: 10.1093/gerona/59.3.m268

Uchino, B. N., Trettevik, R., Kent de Grey, R. G., Cronan, S., Hogan, J., & Baucom, B. R. W. (2018). Social support, social integration, and inflammatory cytokines: A meta-analysis. Health Psychology, 37(5), 462–471. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0000594

Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., Ronzi, S., & Hanratty, B. (2016). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart102(13), 1009–1016. doi: 10.1136/heartjnl-2015-308790

Wilson, R. S., Krueger, K. R., Arnold, S. E., Schneider, J. A., Kelly, J. F., Barnes, L. L., … Bennett, D. A. (2007). Loneliness and Risk of Alzheimer Disease. Archives of General Psychiatry64(2), 234. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.64.2.234

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