Can loneliness really damage your health?

Interviews,Rob Sharp
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:46
Desert island distress: isolation, as seen in 'Castaway' can harm your health
Desert island distress: isolation, as seen in 'Castaway' can harm your health

Asked by: Vivian Lo, Birmingham

Answered by: Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Department of Psychology, Brigham Young University, Utah, and Dan Robotham, senior researcher, the Mental Health Foundation, London

What is loneliness?

A recent paper in the US journal Public Library of Science: Medicine highlighted how instances of loneliness can increase mortality. But what does it actually mean to be lonely? According to the mental health charity Mind, loneliness is characterised by an unbearably deep sense of separateness.

The organisation's website suggests that people's ability to balance isolation versus social interaction evolves through their lives. "There are bound to be times in our lives when this process of growing up, of becoming separate selves, feels difficult," reads Mind's official advice. "[These are times] when we feel anxious, abandoned, unloved, insecure."

Being alone is not always a bad thing: solitude has been very helpful to many well-known writers, philosophers and composers. Some creative interests developed over a lifetime – painting or sculpture, say – can be an important part of stability and contentment.

How can being alone affect your health?

There is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. Many people spend time away from other people through choice, whereas loneliness often relates to a lack of support and acceptance within a social context. Removal of social support is almost always to the detriment of our mental and physical health.

It has been shown that loneliness makes it harder to regulate behaviour, rendering people more likely to drink excessive quantities of alcohol, have unhealthier diets, or take less exercise. There is also evidence that loneliness adversely affects the immune and cardiovascular systems, while psychiatric research has demon-strated links to stress and depression.

Who is feeling lonely?

According to a recent report by a British charity, the Mental Health Foundation, loneliness affects men and women of all ages but the younger you are the more likely you are to feel lonely on a regular basis. And women are more disposed than men to feel estranged from society and to experience depression as a result. Factors causing loneliness include: lifestyle changes due to social networking; cheap air travel meaning we may live further from our families; and people delaying the age at which they marry and have children.

In the US over the past 20 years there has been a three-fold increase in the number of people who say they have no close confidants. Someone surrounded by people may still feel desperately lonely. Many people seeking help for over-whelming feelings of loneliness have active social lives, busy jobs, stable relationships or marriages, and family.

How does loneliness negatively affect your health, compared with life-threatening diseases?

The Public Library of Science study looked at data from 148 previous studies and con-cluded that social relationships lead to a longer life. The negative effect of loneliness on people's well-being is comparable to the impact of excessive smoking and alcohol, and exceeds the effects of no exercise or obesity. The report's authors have called on the media and public, as well as social services and medical professionals, to take loneliness seriously. That said, Mental Health Foundation experts say they "in no way want to pathologise loneliness and describe it at a disease".

What kind of relationships are best for us?

The degree of loneliness relates to the breadth and depth of our social relation-ships. To what extent do our social networks support and accept us? We are advised to seek and cultivate relationships that make us feel good about ourselves – especially relevant in the age of online social networking.

The Mental Health Foundation suggests that beneficial physiological reactions – chemical processes believed to underpin the link between social contact and good cardiovascular function – occur as a result of physical and intellectual relationships but not when a relationship is virtual. Social networking websites and other technological advances can make it easier for us to keep in contact with people over long distances and long periods of time, but shouldn't constitute a replace-ment for face-to-face relationships.

What can you do to stave off loneliness?

People should look at local opportunities: sports clubs, book groups or volunteer organisations. These are often made available through GP surgeries, mental health services, youth workers, occupational therapists and local authority websites. Mental Health charities support local services that facilitate face-to-face contact, and neighbourhood schemes that encourage people to engage proactively with their communities. Most importantly, the awareness of loneliness needs to be increased through greater public debate.

There is some evidence to suggest that being part of a social network is more advantageous than one-off instances of support, and that help from a friend is better than that provided by a stranger.

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