A scientific review of studies on social isolation and loneliness has determined that loneliness is associated with a 30 per cent increase in risk of chronic heart disease (CHD) and stroke.
Researchers at the University of York in the United Kingdom looked at 16 studies and 23 research papers on the topic of poor social relationships to conclude that loneliness is linked to a 29 per cent increase in the risk of CHD and a 32 per cent increase in the risk of stroke.
“Our work suggests that addressing loneliness and social isolation may have an important role in the prevention of two of the leading causes of morbidity in high-income countries,” say the study’s authors.
Experts have long known that loneliness can have drastic consequences for a person’s well-being, affecting not only psychological health but physiological and behavioural systems as well. Lower self-esteem is linked to loneliness, as is a decline in self-efficacy, higher blood pressure, poorer immune system, smoking prevalence and physical inactivity.
The current research adds to the evidence by highlighting the connection between loneliness, social isolation and CHD and stroke. In one of its reviewed studies, researchers followed 13,686 men and women who were initially free of stroke over a period of 18 years and found that those with a small social network were marked with a significantly higher risk of stroke.
The authors contend that so far, the health and well-being consequences of loneliness have yet to receive the attention they deserve. “Addressing health-damaging behaviours is also likely to be important, with lonely and isolated people more likely to smoke and be physically inactive, for example, primary prevention strategies, such as promoting social networks or developing resilience, have received limited attention to date.”
But what exactly is it to be lonely?
According to University of Chicago social neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo, while often associated with depression, loneliness is in fact its own phenomenon. Whereas depression can lead a person to seek solitude and stay inactive, loneliness is driven by an (unfulfilled) desire to make human connections, infused with a sense of isolation and even social rejection. In his book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Connection, Cacioppo describes loneliness as “social pain,” a state of being which breeds feelings of isolation and social rejection. “[Loneliness] triggers feelings of threat and dread,” says Cacioppo. “It reflects how you feel about your relationships whereas depression reflects how you feel, period.”
While prevalent among all age and gender groups, those most vulnerable to loneliness are thought to include the elderly and the young. A 2013 study of Canadian post-secondary students found that 63 per cent reported feeling very lonely and 9.5 per cent said they had seriously considered taking their own lives over the previous year. An estimated 1.3 million Canadian seniors suffer from chronic loneliness, making them 59 per cent more likely to physically and mentally decline than their peers with stronger social relationships. Seniors who are not fully retired and have higher levels of household income and education are less likely to report being lonely.