Study: Don't Be Lonely, It's Bad for You

Loneliness is associated with weaker immune systems, greater sensitivity to physical pain, and other health measures that imply that, at some point, even our own bodies don't like us.

6118373966_d04916cc19_z615.jpg
rprathap/Flickr

PROBLEM: "Because the need for social connection is central to human nature, the failure to fulfill this need should be detrimental to mental and physical health," write researchers at Ohio State (emphasis mine). The thing is, even though we know that loneliness sucks, we don't completely understand the implications of a life spent significantly cut off from the company of others.

METHODOLOGY: In two related studies, the researchers gathered first overweight but otherwise healthy middle-aged adults, and then breast cancer survivors. They took blood samples and subjected the participants to stress tests, among other ordeals. They evaluated their social lives by means of the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which deals with perceptions of loneliness which, when it comes down to it, matter more than how many people they may actually be surrounded by or the number of Facebook friends they tally.

RESULTS: The loneliest of the otherwise healthy participants had more markers of inflammation when tasked with a stressful activity, like speaking in front of others or doing math.

The lonelier breast cancer survivors, in addition to increased inflammation, experienced more pain, depression, and fatigue. Reactivation of latent herpes viruses, which tends to be triggered by stress, can also be used a measure of immune response. Here, those who scored higher for loneliness showed more signs of herpes reactivation.

CONCLUSION: Loneliness acts as a stressor, is associated with a variety of "dysfunctional immune responses," and may well be harmful to our health.

IMPLICATIONS: It can be stressful to be alone, with detrimental effects just as any type of stress warrants. Loneliness as a chronic stressor, as these results indicate it may be, can therefore be tied to everything from heart disease to Alzheimer's.

Of course, "It's also important to remember the flip side, which is that people who feel very socially connected are experiencing more positive outcomes," said lead author Lisa Jaremka. But if you're already lonely, don't let that make you feel worse.

The research was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Health

Just In