Chronic loneliness can be self-perpetuating towards more intense isolation causing serious health issues, a new study has shown.
John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, presented his latest research at the Social Psychology and Perception meeting in San Diego recently, discussing his findings that there is a direct biological link between being lonely and ill health.
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"Even fruit flies that are isolated have worse health and die sooner than those that interact with others, showing that social engagement may be hard-wired," Cacioppo said.
Cacioppo, who has been studying the biological effects of loneliness for many years, claims that individuals may experience physical manifestations of their loneliness, as their genes sets change overtime that can compromise their cardiovascular, immune, nervous systems and even memory function.
These claims followed the 2007 research (in which Cacioppo collaborated with UCLA genomics researcher Steve Cole) found that lonely people exhibited increased activity in several genes that encourage inflammation, and decreased activity in genes that defend against viruses and other invaders resulting in socially isolated people being more susceptible to illnesses and less ability to fight cancers.
They also found that socially isolated people wake up more at night, destroying their quality of sleep, so they do not get the amount of sleep necessary to restore and repair the body both physically and psychologically.
"What we see is a consistent pattern where it looks like human immune cells are programmed with a defensive strategy that gets activated in lonely people," Cole said.
"Much like the threat of physical pain, loneliness protects your social body. It lets you know when social connections start to fray, and causes the brain to go on alert for social threats," Cacioppo told technology network LiveScience.
"Being lonely can produce hyper-reactivity to negative behaviours in other people, so lonely people see those maltreatments as heavier. That makes it possible to fall more deeply into loneliness."
"Some people are socially isolated and they're not lonely," states Daniel Russell, a psychologist at Iowa State University in Ames who helped develop the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a questionnaire that tries to measure how people perceive their social situation. Just as socially active people with 500 friends on Facebook may still have strong feelings of loneliness.
Previous studies by Cacioppo found that lonely people tend to rate their own social interactions more negatively and form worse impressions of people they meet, and that the subjective experience of being lonely or how one perceives loneliness is more of an indicator on physical health than the actual number of social contacts a person has.
The new study found that people who score high on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, exhibit a number of physiological changes such as tightened arteries that raises blood pressure, forcing the heart to work harder, increased blood pressure to dangerous levels that could instigate heart attacks or stroke, and elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
These findings indicate that the sympathetic nervous system the fight or flight response is activated during times of loneliness. Cacioppo equates this response to our evolutionary process in which in order for our ancestors to survive it was fundamental to be part of a group to find food, shelter, protection and help raise their young.
Cacioppo had previously found evidence that suggests loneliness is partly inherited. He explains that there is sort of a "genetic thermostat" of loneliness that measures differently in different people.
"You're not inheriting loneliness; you're inheriting how painful it feels to be alone," Cacioppo says.
Loneliness doesn't just make people feel unhappy; it actually makes them feel unsafe. Cacioppo surmises that the distress people feel is their body sending warning signals when people feel they are drifting away from the their group.
In order to prevent loneliness, Cacioppo suggests: "The degree of social connection that can improve our health and our happiness … is both as simple and as difficult as being open and available to others."