Loneliness Is Bad for Your Health
If you’ve ever been alone for a long period of time, you know it’s not a good feeling. Researchers who study the human brain believe that loneliness and a lack of social interaction can trigger reactions in our brains that are similar to hunger, thirst and pain. It’s more than simply a feeling or a passing emotion – loneliness is a complex condition that can have a real and measurable impact on your physical health and well-being.
For this reason, it’s just as important to talk to your doctor about loneliness as it is to discuss other conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer.
Loneliness, Stress and Cortisol
The “fight or flight” response that people experience during an emergency situation is caused by a hormone called cortisol. When something bad happens and you need to act quickly to save yourself, your brain sends a signal to your adrenal glands to release cortisol. It gives you that extra jolt of stress and awareness to help you run away or fight for your life. In small doses over short periods of time, it’s very useful.
Loneliness can cause this same kind of stress response and the associated release of cortisol. Unlike in an emergency situation, this type of stress provides little benefit to the person experiencing it. On the contrary, it hurts the human body. People experiencing chronic stress response are at greater risk for a long list of unhealthy conditions and symptoms. This includes anxiety and depression, stomach problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment.
Unfortunately, loneliness and the unhealthy symptoms it creates impact your longevity. In reviewing studies on the effects of loneliness on health, researchers discovered that feeling lonely, living alone and being socially isolated can shorten your life. Over a seven-year period, people who reported feeling lonely were 26 percent more likely to die than people who had a strong social network. Social isolation increased those chances to 29 percent and living alone increased the likelihood of dying to 32 percent.
Who’s at Risk?
Anyone who experiences loneliness for long periods of time is at risk, but older adults are especially vulnerable. Many people take pride in being able to care for themselves into old age, which often means that they find themselves living alone.
In fact, about 30 percent of people 65 years old and older live alone in the United States. By the time they reach 85, half of all people are living alone. In another research study, up to 43 percent of older adults reported feelings of loneliness. During the six years of follow-up done during that research study, those who reported feeling loneliness experienced higher rates of declining mobility, difficulty in performing routine daily activities, and death.
Overcoming loneliness isn’t easy, but there are things you can do if you or a loved one are feeling alone:
- Pursue a hobby that will help you build a social network.
- Schedule dinners with an elderly family member who lives alone.
- Help older adults address limitations that keep them isolated, such as mobility issues, problems with hearing and sight, and lack of transportation.
- Contact a religious or community organization to arrange home visits for family members who are unable to leave the house.
- Talk to your family doctor about loneliness – they can provide resources and counselors that can help.
Above all else, don’t be ashamed of your feelings of loneliness. Addressing your feelings and finding a way to overcome your loneliness is important to ensure you maintain good health.