Loneliness is hard on your immune system. Whether you’re healthy or sick, it makes you vulnerable to ill health, according to new research.
“Regardless of how healthy you are, being lonely is not pleasant,” said researcher Lisa Jaremka, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State University. And your immune system responds, she told Senior Planet.
Jaremka’s findings echo those of other research that links loneliness to a higher risk of serious health problems and death in older people.
She presented the research Saturday at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual meeting in New Orleans.
In her study, Jaremka evaluated more than 300 adults, including 200 breast-cancer survivors and 134 healthy people.
First, she measured loneliness, often described as a feeling of emptiness, by asking the participants to take a well-respected survey designed to evaluate these feelings. “Loneliness and social isolation are different,” she says. It’s possible to feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by many people, or to not feel lonely when you aren’t always surrounded by many people. And we don’t always know how lonely we’re really feeling.
Measuring the Effects of Loneliness
In the breast-cancer survivors, Jaremka measured antibodies produced in response to a common virus that affects most Americans but doesn’t usually cause health problems. (Antibodies are proteins that the body produces in response to invaders.) Those who were loneliest had higher antibody levels than the less lonely – and these higher levels hint at problems in the immune system. Those who were loneliest also reported more pain, depression and fatigue.
Next, Jaremka compared 144 of the breast cancer survivors with the healthy adults. She took blood samples first, then made them all complete a stressful task: Each participant had to give a five-minute speech and perform mental arithmetic while a panel watched. Stress is known to tax the immune system; the question was, can loneliness function as a stressor.
The Connectedness-Health Link
When the researchers compared the blood samples that they took after further stimulating the participants’ immune systems, they looked for levels of inflammatory substances that reflect an immune system response. The loneliest people had higher levels after the stressful situation than those who were not lonely. Chronically high inflammation levels have been linked with the development of heart disease, diabetes and many other chronic diseases.
What did those who reported feeling more connected to people do to stave off loneliness?
“Those who reported lower scores said they felt very cared for and loved,” Jaremka says. She added that they probably go out of their way to find connections. For example, those who live in retirement communities might volunteer to distribute the mail or participate in game night, she told Senior Planet.
Some seniors find they can reduce feelings of isolation by connecting with friends and family via social media like Facebook, as well as on Skype. It’s possible that these digital connections, like offline ones, could help our bodies ward off illness and the reactivation of viruses that have been lying dormant.
How lonely are you? You can take a version of the UCLA Loneliness Scale that the researchers used in their study by clicking here.