The Epidemic of Loneliness

What makes us happy and content in life? Some people may point to fabulous fame and fortune. Yet hands down, surveys show that friends and family are the real prize. Even though our need to connect is innate, some of us are always home alone. On the flip side, some people who are surrounded by others throughout the day, or even be in a lifelong marriage, still experience a deep and pervasive loneliness.

Feelings of loneliness and isolation affect all types and ages of people, although some, like adolescents, are more likely to be impacted than others. It doesn’t matter if a teenager has 500 Instagram connections, that vast network can’t ameliorate the emotional desolation of loneliness. The elderly are also at high risk of loneliness and isolation. Research indicates that more than 20 percent of people over age 60 frequently feel intensely lonely.

Suffering from loneliness is similar to suffering from physical pain. In one experiment, the use of Tylenol lessened the aches of loneliness. With a dose of acetaminophen, scans of lonely individuals showed reduced activity in pain-processing areas of the brain. In addition, loneliness heightens the fight-or-flight response—a physiological reaction when a person faces harm or danger. This heightened response can make a person irritable, even angry. The sense of threat may feed a detrimental cycle of isolation and disconnection. 

The Adverse Effects of Social Isolation

Not surprisingly, feelings of isolation can have a serious detrimental effect on one's mental and physical health. Loneliness can be a risk factor for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, among other critical diseases. Lonely people are also twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

At the root, isolation compromises immunity, increases the production of stress hormones, and is harmful to sleep. All of this feeds chronic inflammation, which lowers immunity to the degree that lonely people even suffer more from the common cold. Loneliness can be a chronic stress condition that ages the body and causes damage to overall well-being.


Depression, Anxiety

Escaping Loneliness

As people age, friends and family age with them, and sometimes they are the last ones standing. Getting out to meet new people isn’t always easy for the very old.  Physical limitations, like diminished sight and hearing, can interfere with the ability to hold a conversation.

Since loneliness is something of a public health crisis, it is imperative to combat social isolation and help people of all ages connect with each other. Just like promoting healthy eating and exercise and reducing drug and alcohol consumption, taking steps to increase social opportunities is important to public and personal health.



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