Loneliness is about as dangerous as smoking, and twice as deadly as obesity. As shocking as it might seem, chronic feelings of loneliness are really quite hazardous to your health. This is not to say going through a period of isolation, like when grieving a loss or moving to a new town, is harmful. It’s long term segregation that has a terrible impact on health.
For animals that live in social groups, being on the outside is dangerous. The loners are more susceptible to predators and they don’t always get their share of needs met by the group. Chemically, stress hormones rise and dopamine levels (the happy, relaxing hormones) drop. The animals spend their lives on high alert, ready to react to danger and prepared for the worst at all times. Humans are social beings, too; we need to know that someone has our back in order to feel safe. And if we don’t feel safe, or connected to a group, stress and anxiety levels go up, causing physical damage in the long run. We don’t sleep as well (whether we consciously notice it or not), we don’t relax fully enough, and we actually lose some of our impulse control, meaning we engage in riskier behaviors. In the long run, this adds up to a serious impact on our health.
Elevated stress increases blood pressure. This means the heart is working harder, leading to a weaker circulatory system and damaged blood vessels. These stress hormones also change which genes are turned “on” or “off,” affecting how we behave and sending other bodily systems out of healthy, functioning order. Lonely people are more like to get certain diseases, like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Tumors actually metastasize faster in those who are lonely. Surprisingly, doctors in one study revealed that they find themselves giving better medical care to patients who are connected to a social group.
It may seem odd, but despite the relatively recent social media explosion, loneliness is on the rise – by a lot. In two recent surveys, 40 percent of the American population reported feeling lonely, up from just 20% thirty years ago. How can this be when our world is more connected than ever? People have thousands of “followers” and “friends” so why are they lonely? It is a question of quality, not quantity. One study of Facebook users found that the more time people spent on Facebook, the unhappier they felt. Social media offers surface level connections with many, many people, but it is not a good source for the deep personal connections we need. Ever been to a party where you didn’t fit in? There are people everywhere, but you feel lonely. A few strong personal connections are all we need to feel secure and supported, and stave off loneliness. Unfortunately, loneliness is also a self-perpetuating problem. A lonely person reacts to life as if they are under threat; they are less likely to trust people enough to open up and make a friend.
Loneliness is particularly problematic for the elderly. It is much more common for families to be spread out across the country, so close relationships are hard to maintain and not as satisfying. Spouses and friends pass away, and it can be more challenging to meet new people when social groups shift. For students and working adults, there are plenty of opportunities to meet new people with similar interests. For the retired senior, it requires a more proactive pursuit – taking a risk in finding and approaching someone new. Seniors are more likely to be set in their ways, firmly entrenched in their comfort zone, than their younger counterparts. Neighborhoods and associated social groups, like churches and clubs, are not as strong as they once were. Finding a new social group is hard, but once loneliness has set in (as well as the physiological effects that accompany it), it may seem like an insurmountable obstacle for many.
Helping a lonely person is not easy. But if you know a senior who leads a very solitary lifestyle, they may need help to make social connections. If you have an aging parent or grandparent who has lost friends or a spouse, consider pushing them a little harder to make new connections. Keep in mind that not everyone needs a lot of friends to feel secure – alone is not the same as lonely – but for the sake of good health and a happy lifestyle, everyone needs to fit in somewhere.