Loneliness worse for your health than smoking and obesity

According to the research of Dr. John Cacioppo, loneliness has a major impact on your overall health – both mental and physical.

In his research, Dr. Cacioppo employed brain scans, monitoring of autonomic and neuroendocrine processes, and assays of immune function to test the influence that social connection has upon our health. His research showed how our perceptions, behavior and physiology are strongly affected by a loss of that connection.

 Loneliness worse for your health than smoking and obesity

Picasso – the old guitarist

In fact, Dr. Cacoppo’s research has shown that loneliness can cause:

  • an increase in your blood pressure
  • an increase in your level of stress and cortisol production
  • a negative impact on your immune system
  • an inability to get a good nights sleep
  • an increased level of depression and anxiety
  • an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease
  • a reduction in your will to exercise
  • an increase in your cravings for comforting foods high in processed carbohydrates
  • an increase in caloric consumption
  • an increase in alcohol consumption
  • an increase in the consumption of a variety of drugs…both legal and illegal, and…
  • a feeling of sadness that feeds upon itself, causing even more isolation and an even greater sense of loneliness.

These finding were presented by Dr. Cacioppo at the most recent conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

According to Dr. Cacioppo, “healthwise, the difference between a lonely person and a popular person was akin to “a smoker and a non-smoker”. “That stunned all of us, myself and all my colleagues in terms of the effects it had,” he said. “It shows just how powerful it is.

“Loneliness lowers the ability to control yourself. It is really easy after a bad day to have a second scotch and a third to get some comfort.”

Dr. Cacioppo’s research has led him to believe that our need for connection can be traced back through our evolutionary roots.

In order to survive in the past, humans needed to bond to rear their children. In order to flourish, they needed to [increase their levels of altruism and cooperation]. Just as physical pain is a prompt to change behavior, such as moving a finger away from the fire, loneliness evolved as a prompt to action, signaling an ancestral need to repair the social bonds.

The problem of social isolation is likely to grow as conventional family structures die out, said Dr. Cacioppo. People are living longer, having fewer children later in life and becoming increasingly mobile around the world.

Surveys also show that people report significantly fewer close friends and confidants than those a generation ago.

All of this adds up to more loneliness and more health problems because of that loneliness.

According to the good doctor, we need to realize that “human beings are simply far more intertwined and interdependent—physiologically as well as psychologically—than our cultural prejudices have allowed us to acknowledge”. And if we don’t address our very real need for connection, we are risking our own psychological and physiological health.

“If you want to go fast,” says an African proverb, “go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Reference

Doug Robb is a personal trainer, a fitness blogger and author, a competitive athlete, a social media nerd and a student of nutrition and exercise science. Since 2008, Doug has brought his real-world experience online via his health & fitness blog, Health Habits.

3 Comments

  1. Christian Harland

    July 27, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    Good advice Thanks.
    Chris. jump make

  2. Emily

    February 17, 2009 at 9:42 am

    This is a great, great post — and why I love your blog so much; you really look at health from all different angles, and break down these studies for us.

    If you’d asked me if I thought loneliness mattered, I’d say sure, it probably has some effect. But I wouldn’t have given it as much weight as it apparently deserves. So interesting, and definitely makes me take a closer look at my social life!

  3. DR

    February 17, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Thanks for the compliment Emily

    I agree about taking a closer look at our social lives. This research really forced me to think about some “stuff” this weekend.

    It’s this kind of research that makes me shake my head when some expert tells the world that he has discovered the “magic bullet” cure/supplement/pill for a particular ailment. Our bodies are complex and everything is interrelated.

    Mind and body and emotions and diet and environment and companionship and etc…all play a part in creating our health and happiness.