This post is largely based on a feature article titled “Feeling lonely? You’re not on your own” by Moya Sarner in the 22 July 2017 New Scientist.

Steve Cole at the University of California at Los Angeles says that lonely people are at increased risk of “just about every major chronic illness — heart attacks, neurodegenerative diseases, cancer. A meta-analysis of nearly 150 studies found that a poor quality of social relationships had the same negative effect on risk of death as smoking, alcohol and other well-known factors such as inactivity and obesity. Cacioppo of the University of Chicago says that “Correcting for demographic factors, loneliness increases the odds of early mortality by 26%. That’s about the same as living with chronic obesity,”

One reason is that loneliness lowers willpower, so we are more likely to indulge in self-defeating behavior. We make take risks and make bad decision from choosing unhealthy food to avoiding exercise, Feeling socially isolated also increases the risk of mental health problems such as stress, depression, and eating disorders, all of which aversely effect our physical health.

Cacioppo and Cole compared gene expression in the white blood cells of two groups. One group consisted of six persistently lonely middle-aged adults and in the other group were eight who ranked as consistently socially enfranchised. In the lonelier group, the activity of genes responsible for inflammation was ramped up.

Although inflammation is the body’s first line of defense against injury and bacterial infection, too much inflammation has been linked to cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and obesity. The lonely people also had less activity in the genes that regulate immune response to viral infections.

Too much inflammation changes the brain triggering behaviors that prime for threats. Cole says, “Inflammatory biology makes the brain a little more suspicious, vigilant and irritable.” Cacioppo and his team measured people’s brain activity while they looked at either threatening or neutral pictures and found that lonely people tuned in to social threats faster. This hyper-vigilance could explain the correlation between loneliness and poor sleep quality.

Today young people seem particularly vulnerable. This article does not mention the manner in which technology is used. Being constantly connected and friending could be driven in large part by loneliness. Robin Dunbar, at the University of London (who has appeared in five previous healthy memory blog posts) states that if there’s one factor that stands out in alleviating loneliness, it is the quality, rather than quantity of relationships. He says that this fits our evolutionary past. “For you to live, survive, work, and function well depends on you having a set of very intense close friendships, or family relationships. It turns out that this core group numbers about five close friends and family—and this is very consistent across primates, including humans.” To maintain those crucial five or so relationships, there’s an easy formula. You need to dedicate 40% of your total social effort to them, “ and that means seeing them on a very regular basis.” Small changes like pruning random acquaintances from social media, setting notifications for updates from real friends, and spending time with a core group could all act as a buffer against loneliness.

It seems the best approach is to start with the mind, rather than trying to expand you social network. A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness found that the most successful dealt with the psychological aspects of loneliness using cognitive behavioral training. The heightened sense of threat lonely people feel means they are more likely to pay attention and remember negative details and events, and behave in ways that confirm their negative expectations, perpetuating the vicious spiral of loneliness.

Research by Cole, who is investigating what factors might make people less likely to succumb to the negative health effects of loneliness, thinks that finding a sense of purpose and meaning in life can overcome the negative effects of loneliness. Cole says, “If you think of lonely people as having a world view of threat and hostility, this study suggests that you can attack this underlying psychology by becoming engaged in help others, trying to make the world a better place. I’m kind of excited about that as an obliques attack on loneliness.” All of this fits in with with the work of Victor J. Stretcher, which he describes in his book, “Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Changes Everything.” There have been many healthy memory posts based on this book.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



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