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Loneliness as a Public Health Hazard

Loneliness as a Public Health Hazard
April 22
09:27 2016

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” – Arthur C. Clarke

Loneliness has plagued all creeds, genders, religions, and races since the dawn of time. Today, we view loneliness as a serious hazard to public heath. Scientists have found significant connections between loneliness and disease and are trying to locate the specific biological mechanisms that make loneliness such a menace.

By inspecting loneliness at a molecular level, scientists are finding that isolation can actually change the human genome in long-lasting ways.

“The eternal quest of the individual human being is to shatter his loneliness.” – Norman Cousins

The potential damage long-term loneliness can cause is comparable to those of diabetes, smoking, and obesity. Scientists have concluded that prolonged loneliness is a serious and lethal risk. And the US, which worships individuality, is doing nothing to stop its spread.

“In public health, we talk all the time about obesity and smoking and have all these interventions, but not about people who are lonely and socially isolated,” says assistant professor Kerstin Gerst Emerson of the University of Georgia’s Institute of Gerontology. “There are really tangible, terrible outcomes. Lonely people are dying, they’re less healthy, and they are costing our society more.”

Researchers have known for years that social isolation can affect the human genome and put people at higher risk for conditions like metastatic cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s, explains psychologist Steve Cole. “But we haven’t understood why.”

Last year, Cole and his colleagues at the UCLA School of Medicine teamed up with researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of California at Davis. They found surprisingly complex immune system responses within the bodies of lonely people. Turns out, social isolation actually ‘turns up’ the genes responsible for inflammation and ‘turns down’ genes responsible for producing antibodies.

To be more scientific, the abnormalities were found in a type of white blood cell called a monocyte. These cells are located in the body’s bone marrow and play a vital role in a person’s immune system. Immature monocytes reduce a person’s ability to fight infection and promote inflammation within the body. And they are rife within the bodies of lonely people.

These cellular changes are a byproduct of humankind’s evolution, says John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. In humankind’s early days, a person’s survival heavily depended on his or her ability to communicate and cooperate. Thus, social isolation was a deadly risk. Over time, evolution shaped our bodies to need social interaction just as we need food and water. But in today’s society, isolation is all but encouraged.

Psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds sees lonely patients “all the time” in her office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Many of the people who end up lonely give off signals they want to be alone out of anxiety…Feeling left out has a huge effect on our psyche from our evolutionary worries that everyone else will survive and we won’t,” she explains.

Gerst and his colleague Jayani Jayawardhana conducted a study at the University of Georgia to find out just how widespread the effects of loneliness are. From their results, they concluded that loneliness was “a significant public health issue,” a problem that “contributes to a cycle of illness and health-care utilization.”

New York psychotherapist Matt Lundquist says he is “shocked that there isn’t more conversation” about loneliness within public-health circles. “Loneliness is a brutal issue.”

Countries such as the US could do a lot more to address loneliness as a serious public health issue. Just look at the United Kingdom, which launched its “Campaign to End Loneliness” in 2011. The program involves thousands of organizations and five social service agencies to spread awareness of the problem.

“Much of our time is spent campaigning: communicating with, convincing, and persuading those who make choices about health and healthcare spending to tackle and prevent loneliness,” writes Kellie Payne, the program’s leading research manager.

“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.” – Albert Schweitzer


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April Kuhlman

April Kuhlman

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