How Loneliness Hurts Your Health

How Loneliness Hurts Your Health

A lack of social connection can be dangerous to your heart, brain and more.

Some people just need their alone time, but even the most introverted may eventually suffer health complications. "Humans are highly social mammals,” says Stephen Pinals, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist and Chairman of Psychiatry with Saint Joseph Mercy Health System. "We wouldn’t have survived without our evolving social function.” Loneliness can lead to more stress, heart disease, dementia and other health problems. 

Researchers often make a distinction between objective loneliness—also known as social isolation—and subjective loneliness. “Loneliness is a subjective experience; you might feel cut off from people even though you’re surrounded by them,” says Dr. Pinals. “That’s different from objective social isolation.” Social isolation may contribute to, but not necessarily cause loneliness. It's important to note that both loneliness and social isolation can damage your health.

Loneliness and health
Loneliness and social isolation don’t just affect your social life—they play havoc with your health. “We know that loneliness reduces survival,” says Pinals, who notes that people who are lonely may have:

  • A less effective immune system
  • Higher risk of coronary artery disease
  • Higher risk of stroke
  • Higher risk of hypertension
  • Higher risk of dementia
  • More stress hormones

These health issues can contribute to an increased risk of early mortality. A 2015 meta-analysis in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that loneliness, social isolation and living alone are all associated with an early death. Living alone is the most dangerous, with a 32 percent increase in mortality, followed by social isolation at 29 percent and loneliness at 26 percent.

At particular risk are older adults. More than a quarter of Americans age 65 or older—or 12.6 million out of 44.7 million—live alone, and that figure jumps to 46 percent for women over 75. Seniors who live alone tend to become lonely more than those who live with others. Why? “Older adults are less mobile, they generally don’t use social media, and they may not have as much contact with family and friends,” says Pinals.

Lonely people are prone to poor health for a number of reasons. They generally have more bad habits like smoking and alcohol use, and often don’t eat right or get enough exercise. Loneliness also interferes with a good night’s sleep, which can compromise your immune system and put you at risk for heart disease, obesity and diabetes. People might also be isolated because they’re chronically ill, have limited mobility or a low income. And, depression and loneliness feed into one another.

Fighting back against loneliness
While mental health plays a role, loneliness is a combination of perspective and circumstance. “Individuals who are socially isolated often choose that lifestyle and resist getting out and being social,” says Pinals. But whether people choose to isolate themselves or their social networks are limited, it’s important to go out and see others. The internet can help; a 2013 study published in Journal of Medical Internet Research suggests that going online can decrease loneliness.

Still, Pinals suggests real human contact. “Whether it’s going to church, the senior center or walking around the shopping mall, try to just be outside and away from home," he says. "Those who choose to stay in are at higher risk for all those poor outcomes.”

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