For the first time, a new study has identified how loneliness and "perceived social isolation" trigger fight-or-flight stress responses that can lead to illness and premature death. Until now, the cellular mechanisms that link loneliness, adverse health outcomes, and premature death have been poorly understood.
The November 2015 study, ”Myeloid Differentiation Architecture of Leukocyte Transcriptome Dynamics in Perceived Social Isolation,” appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This study sheds light on how loneliness and perceptions of social isolation cause physiological changes that can make someone sick or die prematurely.
Human beings are inherently social creatures. Research continues to grow that each of us must maintain social connectivity in order to optimize our physical and psychological well-being throughout our lifespan.
In a Facebook age—where many of us primarily connect socially via a digital interface—it’s more important than ever to make a conscious effort to create and maintain intimate bonds and a strong sense of community. It's also important to avoid becoming xenophobic and to remain vigilant about not creating loneliness or perceived social isolation for others. Everyone has the right to feel worthy of love and belonging.
Any type of social network and sense of belonging can benefit our health. However, research shows that we need face-to-face contact and intimate human connections to engage biological systems that have evolved for millennia to preserve our mental and physical well-being.
The latest research on loneliness was led by John T. Cacioppo from the University of Chicago. The researchers found that for older adults, perceived social isolation is a major health risk that can increase the risk of premature death by 14 percent.
John Cacioppo is a social psychologist and neuroscientist who studies the biological effects of loneliness. In previous research, Cacioppo found that loneliness is linked to dramatic increases in the stress hormone cortisol, hardening of the arteries (which leads to high blood pressure), inflammation in the body, and can diminish executive function, learning, and memory.
Along with Cacioppo, the latest loneliness research team included Steven W. Cole of the University of California, Los Angeles and John P. Capitanio of the California National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis. Their new study examines loneliness in both humans and rhesus macaques, another very social primate species. Lonely people and "lonely-like" monkeys both had a less effective immune response and more inflammation than their non-lonely counterparts.
The findings suggest that loneliness leads to fight-or-flight stress signaling. According to the researchers, the "danger signals" activated in the brain by feelings of social isolation and loneliness ultimately affect the production of white blood cells. The resulting shift in monocyte output may perpetuate loneliness and contribute to its associated health risks.
John Cacioppo emphasizes that solitude or physical isolation alone aren’t necessarily detrimental. Rather, it’s the subjective sense of feeling loneliness or perceived social isolation that is most disruptive. Many people who live alone aren’t necessarily lonely. In future studies, the team plans to continue their research on how loneliness leads to poor health outcomes and how these effects can be prevented in older adults
In the 1960s, American researchers began studying indigenous cultures and tribes, in remote regions of the world, who had remained untouched by industrialization. They were trying to identify what lifestyle habits were associated with longevity. Scientists such as Alexander Leaf of Harvard Medical School, and René Dubos of Rockefeller University, discovered that strong emotional bonds within a community seemed to protect people from illness and helped them live longer.
Around the same time, doctors began to notice that residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania in the United States had an unusually low rate of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. In the early 1960s, Roseto residents—who were identified as having a tight-knit Italian American heritage throughout the community—experienced a miniscule amount of heart attacks. Roseto men over 65 had a death rate that was half the national average.
Although members of the Roseto community didn’t eat a particularly healthy diet, the researchers identified that the sense of social security and trustworthy human bonds within individual homes and throughout the community was the secret to Roseto residents' lower rates of stress, heart disease, and mortality.
The health benefits of social connections became known as "The Roseto Effect." Sadly, as the traditional Italian-American social structure in Roseto dissolved in the later 20th century, cardiovascular disease and heart attacks grew in tandem. The "Americanization" of their social networks increased stress levels and disease, while decreasing their longevity. In many ways, it appears that loneliness may be a toxic by-product created by an individualistic mentality and the "me" generation pursuing the American Dream.
It's time for us to stop building emotional walls and to start building bridges between one another. Feelings of extreme loneliness are subjective, malleable, and never set in stone. Change is always possible.
Hopefully, this research will inspire any of us who tend to be introverted or might self-identify as a 'loner' to become proactive about maintaining strong emotional connections with a broad spectrum of people. Reaching out to others won't only benefit your individual well-being, it will benefit the health and happiness of those around you—especially those who may be feeling lonelier than you realize. This will create a snowball effect of positive emotions and well-being collectively.
In a perfect world, each of us would be able to reduce our feelings of loneliness and perceived social isolation simply by making an effort to nurture healthy and loving relationships on a daily basis—both with people we know and with strangers. That said, our world is far from perfect. Many of us know what it feels like to be shunned, marginalized, and treated like a second-class citizen because of the way we were born. All too often, discrimination is the root cause of loneliness and perceived social isolation.
What can be done to stop prejudice from creating more social isolation? Ideally, if each of us makes an effort to live by the Golden Rule and, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," I believe we can create an upward spiral of social connectedness.
The neurobiological benefits of loving-kindness and tending-and-befriending are universal and egalitarian. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
As I type this post, there is so much terrorism and fear dominating the headlines and our daily lives. I'm reminded a lot lately of Charlie Chaplin's "Speech to Humanity" from 1940. In this brilliant speech, Chaplin captures the potential hopefulness that comes along with understanding the scientific importance of social connectivity and our universal need for human loving-kindness—especially in the early 21st century.
If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,
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