In 2015,Time magazine published an article claiming that loneliness may become the next big public health issue, on par with obesity and substance abuse. The article referenced a study showing that the subjective feeling of loneliness could increase one’s risk of death by 26%. People who were socially isolated, lacking social connection, or living alone carried even higher mortality risks.
Another study by Cigna in 2018 revealed the following:
Since the study’s release in 2018, the issue of loneliness has only worsened. In 2020, Cigna reported another13% increase in loneliness across subjects. Loneliness is now even more alarming and potentially devastating as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to shelter at home. Now, more than ever, it is vital to understand how to identify and combat loneliness.
There is a difference between loneliness, which is subjective, and social isolation, which is objective. For most, loneliness is the state of being alone and feeling sad, irritable, self-centered, or depressed about it.
Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at theUniversity of Chicago, describes loneliness as “a state of mind characterized by a dissociation between what an individual wants or expects from a relationship and what that individual experiences in that relationship.”
Loneliness affects more than your mood; it can also affect the brain itself. Loneliness activates the body’s physiological stress response. When this stress response becomes frequent or chronic, it can causestructural degeneration of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex of the brain—areas chiefly responsible for emotion.
Loneliness and isolation can alsochange brain chemistry by causing neurochemical imbalances.Allopregnanolone is a neurosteroid produced in the brain tied to regulating emotions. Chronic stress in the form of loneliness reduces the biosynthesis of allopregnanolone and increases the amount of the stress hormone cortisol. In this way, loneliness can result in depression and anxiety, as well as wreak havoc on the immune, metabolic, and cardiovascular systems. It may alsoadversely impact sleep quality, cholesterol levels, and type 2 diabetes risk.
On the other hand,people who are less lonely are more likely to be in good overall physical and mental health, feel balanced in their daily activities, and have positive workplace relationships.
Since a deficiency in allopregnanolone has become a biomarker for mood disorders, allopregnanolone-based treatments are a primary focus of research in this area. According toDr. Cacioppo, “As more is learned about the specific mechanisms through which loneliness is linked to negative health outcomes, new behavioral and pharmacological interventions may be identified to break the chain of events and block the adverse outcomes within one or more pathways.”
It’s important to note that pharmacological treatments are not required to deal with loneliness. However, simply interacting with more people is not the answer, either. It is essential to understand that people who are isolated but feel happy are still at an increased risk of death.
Likewise, people may have many social connections and still feel lonely. They, too, are at an increased risk of death. Worse yet, people who are both isolated and lonely carry the greatest chance of negative health outcomes. So, how do you deal with loneliness?
Habits like drinking, smoking, drug abuse, and obesity are widely accepted as public health issues affecting millions of people and contributing to an escalating healthcare crisis. However, less widely accepted is the contribution of loneliness—raising the risk of death for those affected up to 26%.
Sheltering at home and social distancing in response to the Covid-19 pandemic have further accelerated the loneliness crisis worldwide. Developing and maintaining social connections and meaningful relationships, though more challenging, are now more critical than ever.
If you’re struggling to foster these social relationships in your own life, we’ve got a few recommendations for you. As a good starting place, try joining online classes, group exercise sessions, or interactive video games. You might establish a well-connected friendship from these outlets alone.
If you’re still struggling, you might consider therapy. Fortunately, virtual counseling services are available to assist you whether you’re socially distanced or not. With the right support on your side, you can reverse and prevent the adverse health effects that often accompany loneliness.
Siphiwe Baleka - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice