The Adverse Effects of Social Isolation

Lonely people have a higher risk of everything from heart attacks to dementia, and from depression to death. However, people who are satisfied with their social lives sleep better, age more slowly and have more favorable responses to vaccines. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, an expert on the effects of social isolation, says that curing loneliness is as good for your health as giving up smoking. Charles Raison of Emory University studies mind-body interactions agrees with Cacioppo. He has said, “It’s probably the most powerful behavioral finding in the world. People who have rich social lives and warm open relationships don’t get sick and they live longer.”1

Although it is true that some people who are lonely might not take good care of themselves, Cacioppo states that there are direct physiological mechanisms that are related to the effects of stress. Cacioppo has found that genes involved in cortisol signaling and the inflammatory response are up-regulated in lonely people and that immune cells important in fighting bacteria were more active too. His conjecture is that our bodies might have evolved so that in situations of perceived social isolation, they trigger branches of the immune system involved in would healing and bacterial infection. On the other hand, people in a group might favor the immune response for fighting viruses, which are more likely to be spread among people living in close contact.

It is important to note that these differences relate most strongly to how lonely people believe themselves to be, rather than to the actual size of their social network. Cacioppo thinks that our attitude to others is key here. Lonely people become overly sensitive to social threats and see other people as potentially dangerous. In a review of previous studies that he published last year, he found that disabusing lonely people of this attitude reduced loneliness more effective than giving people more opportunities for interaction, or teaching social skills.2

Only one or two close friends might suffice if you are satisfied with your social life. Problems arise when you feel lonely.3 In the jargon of the Healthymemory Blog, this is largely a matter of transactive memory. Transactive memory refers to shared memories and of the knowledge one has of other memories. These memories can form as a result of person-to-person interactions or via means of technology, such as the internet. It should be noted that having hundreds of friends on Facebook would not necessarily indicate that you are not lonely. “What is important is the quality rather than the quantity of these relationships. An evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar, came up with a number he modestly named, “Dunbar’s number.” He bases this number on the size of the human brain and its complexity. He calculates that the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one time to be about 150 . This number includes all degrees of relationships. This is the maximum number of relationships. The number of close, meaningful relationships is much smaller. He estimates that we have a core group of about five people with whom we speak frequently. I find this absolute number a tad small, but to be in the general ballpark. At the other extreme there are about 100 people with whom we speak about once a year. The 150 number is an absolutely maximum of people we can even generously consider as friends. So Facebook users who have friended several hundred friends have essentially rendered the term “friend” meaningless.” (From the Healthymemory Blog post, “Why is Facebook So Popular?”, also see the Healthymemory Blog post “How Many Friends are Too Many?”).

1From “Trust People” in Heal Thyself by Marchant, J. (2011), New Scientist., 27 August, p. 35.

2Cacipoppo, J. (2010). Annals of Behaviorl Medicine, 40, p. 218.

3This part of this post was based heavily on the article by Marchant in the first footnote above.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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2 Responses to “The Adverse Effects of Social Isolation”

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