26 February 2013
Is loneliness linked to ill health?
It has been known for a long time that loneliness is linked to a decline in mental health with a greater chance of developing depression, stress, anxiety and lack of confidence. There is now, however, growing evidence that isolation can lead to physical ill health.
A study conducted in 2006 on 2,800 women with breast cancer found that those who saw fewer friends and family were 5 times more likely to lose their battle with the disease.
Psychologists from the University of Chicago and Ohio State University found that people who were socially isolated developed changes in their immune system. These changes led to chronic inflammation and can contribute to heart disease and cancer in the long term.
Scientists have also measured stress levels in a wide range of healthy people, both in the morning and the evening. According to the study, lonely people release more of the stress hormone cortisol, too much of which causes inflammation and disease.
The most recent study was conducted at Ohio State University by Dr Lisa Jaremka and looked at women who had survived breast cancer and healthy volunteers. They were put into a stressful environment, were tested for loneliness and had their blood examined. The results showed that in the two groups, the lonelier individuals had higher levels of inflammation.
Dr Jaremka said, “If you’re lonely you can have raised inflammation regardless of having a chronic medical condition. It was a struggle for a long time for physicians to recognise the importance of loneliness in health. We now know how important it is to understand patients’ social worlds.”
She added, “Being lonely means not feeling connected or cared for, it’s not about being physically alone. We need to find ways to help lonely people. Unfortunately we can’t tell anyone to go out and find someone to love you. We need to create support networks.”