Social Isolation May Be the Most Serious Public Health Hazard of the 21st Century?

black and white image of a boy and girl walking down a dirt roadWe now have the ability to connect almost immediately to anyone, anywhere, anytime, but the number of people who feel socially isolated is rising. The percentage of Americans who describe themselves as lonely has doubled since the 1980s, and this weakening of social bonds is taking a serious toll on people’s health.

Research tells us that the loneliness is as likely to cause early death as obesity, smoking, and diabetes. Without human connection, human health and wellbeing falter.

How Loneliness Harms Your Health

Studies indicate that loneliness negatively impacts human health in several ways. People with lower levels of social connection may have to contend with…

  • Poor sleep quality
  • Increased inflammation throughout the body
  • Heightened levels of stress hormone
  • Greater risk of heart disease and stroke.

Steve Cole, a psychologist at the UCLA School of Medicine, studies how social connections influence gene expression.  Cole and a group of colleagues at UCLA collaborated with researchers at the University of California at Davis and the University of Chicago to examine the immune system responses of lonely people. They found that the function of genes that produce antibodies to fight infection were significantly impaired in people who are socially isolated.

According to an analysis that drew on data from 3.4 million people, loneliness increases your risk of dying in the next 7 years by 30 percent. Loneliness affects the health of people of all ages, and the consequences can be long-term. Evidence shows that socially isolated children may have more health problems even after 20 years have passed.

What Causes Loneliness?

One underlying factor that may cause a person to be lonely is a super-sensitivity to social cues. Scientists think lonely people are more likely to view ambiguous social interactions in a negative light. This can cause people to pull away as an act of self-preservation, which worsens feelings of isolation. It can also make loneliness contagious – when one person withdraws, that can ripple through a social circle, weakening ties between others.

Loneliness among older adults often has a different cause – loss. As we age, our family members may scatter to faraway places, and our friends may pass away before we do. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we can end up alone.

How to Cure Loneliness

Dr. John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, is one of the foremost experts on treating loneliness. The most effective method, Cacippo has found, is to address what he calls “maladaptive social cognition.” In other words, he teaches people to change the way they perceive social cues so they can more easily form connections.

elderly-couple-walking_facebookThere are also structural ways to reduce loneliness, for instance, discounted bus passes and special transportation services that help to keep older adults socially connected. An innovative new program developed by Dr. Paul Tang of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation goes even farther. The program, called linkAges, is a cross-generational service exchange based on the core philosophy that everyone has something to offer. Members write posts describing something they need, for example, a ride to an appointment or someone to weed their garden. Other members can then offer their time and skills. When you help another member, you earn hours that you can redeem later when you need something yourself. The program already has hundreds of members in California, and Tang plans to expand it across the country.

In the meantime, we can all take steps to cure loneliness by reaching out to the people around us. It may feel like you need an excuse to talk to your neighbor, but what better reason could there be than boosting both your health and well being?


New York Times “How Social Isolation is Killing Us

Washington Post “Loneliness Grows From Individual Ache to Public Health Hazard