Loneliness: A Danger to Your Health
We often perceive loneliness as a social issue rather than a health issue. This mindset must change, however, because loneliness is now recognized as a leading indicator of health risks. Chronic loneliness is not just a negative feeling. It is as great a risk factor for disease and death as smoking, obesity, diabetes or high blood pressure.
Despite all of this, loneliness is usually not appreciated as a serious health issue. Therefore, it often goes unrecognized by the medical community. Worse, the lonely person may perceive that others are no longer caring friends. And so avoids them or subconsciously pushes them away. This is unfortunate as these are just the individuals that could be of the most assistance.
Loneliness is much more common than generally appreciated.
Everyone has had periods of feeling alone – a child went off to college, a friend moved away, a spouse, parent or child or significant other died. There are many causes.
Most people find ways to cope, to deal with grief over time. But for many others, the loneliness that could be transitory becomes persistent. And, it is accompanied by the perception that no one understands or appreciates the depths of their distress.
The lonely person perceives that no one cares, that no one wants to help. He or she feels trapped and has little appreciation of how to overcome the perceived situation. It is this conversion from temporary situational to long-term perceived loneliness that is of concern.
Loneliness is much more common than generally appreciated, particularly in elders. This is because of temporary stresses in life that only transiently affect younger individuals that can have a profound long-term impact among elders.
Why did loneliness evolve?
Of course, we all like and want to be alone at times. That is perfectly normal, necessary and healthy. But why do we feel lonely? It is actually an evolutionary characteristic that developed for self-protection.
Our early ancestors needed a group for protection. Absent the group, the individual was at grave risk. The feeling of “social pain” evolved to alert the person to attend to group interactions. Consider that even today, banishment from a tight-knit community or religious group inflicts striking emotional pain.
Loneliness is a danger to your health
Not only does being lonely inflict emotional discomfort, but it also inhibits many key physiologic parameters leading to multiple disease states, such as coronary heart disease and stroke. It is also associated with early death. This is because perceived loneliness negatively impacts many cellular activities so that the following occur:
- • inflammation is heightened (in women)
- • immune function is suppressed
- • the aging process is accelerated
In short, perceived loneliness is very bad not only for our social but also our physical health.
Social engagement is critical