The physical effects of loneliness.
By building our understanding of loneliness, we can help ourselves and others to manage the feeling.
When we read about loneliness, it’s often about the physical health effects. Those effects can often sound pretty serious and scary: increased risks of obesity, strokes and heart attacks, Alzheimer’s, dementia and other serious health conditions. It’s really important to point out that these health conditions usually arise from chronic or acute long-term loneliness. If you have been experiencing loneliness for a long time and you’re worried about the impact it might be having on your health (or if you are worried about someone else), it’s important to have as much understanding as possible about how loneliness can impact our health and what we can to do avoid that.
Loneliness in the body
When someone has chronic long-term loneliness, they are more likely to engage in unhealthy lifestyle habits. This could be a poor diet, lack of regular exercise and increased use of alcohol, cigarettes and other substances. This leaves them at higher risk of obesity and other associated health risks, including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancer.
What you can do: The NHS advises getting 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, or 30 minutes five times a week. This can be anything from planned activities to walking or gardening. It doesn’t have to be hugely strenuous, just something that gets you up and moving. If you have health issues that affect your ability to take part in exercise, don’t feel put off by the high target – walking up and downstairs and even stretching in the armchair is good for you.
Loneliness in the brain
Studies have found that long-term isolation and a lack of social stimulation is associated with cognitive decline. This can affect memory loss and develop into more serious neurological disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Long-term studies into the cognitive effects of loneliness have shown that it often takes years or even decades to accumulate. So it’s important to keep regular social interactions going, no matter how small or functionary.
What you can do: Group activities such as indoor gardening, visual art discussions, or physical exercise groups may benefit brain health at the same time as reducing loneliness. Individual activities such as having a pet or one-on-one video conferencing with family members may also reduce loneliness and the risk of cognitive decline. Think of the brain as a muscle: it needs to be exercised regularly to keep it fit and well.
How loneliness in the brain affects our immune system
Chronic loneliness can also compromise our immune system, leaving us less able to fight off illness and disease. The pioneering neuroscientist John Cacioppo found that people who felt acutely lonely over prolonged periods had higher levels of inflammation in their bodies. Inflammation is triggered by the ‘fight or flight' response, a physiological stress response we feel in certain situations. When we are lonely we often feel unsafe and vulnerable and that the world is a hostile place, even if that isn’t strictly true.
Our fight or flight response was essential to keep our ancestors alive in a much more dangerous world and it can still keep us safe in specific situations now. But when our fight or flight response is permanently triggered (as can be the case with chronic loneliness), it can start to affect the production of white blood cells. These white blood cells help the body fight infection and other diseases. Basically, a little inflammation is a good thing, too much is bad for us.
What you can do: As well as increasing your social connections, you could also include more anti-inflammatory foods in your diet (always adhere to recommendations from your health care professional, if you are diabetic for instance). Berries like strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries are good for reducing levels of inflammation in our bodies, as is fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and anchovies, broccoli, avocado, peppers, dark chocolate and cocoa and extra virgin olive oil. Sounds like a good diet to us.
Loneliness by John T Cacioppo and William Patrick, Norton and Company 2008