When you wake up in the morning or when you come home at night, is there anybody with you? Is anyone waiting to greet you?
Chances are the answer is no, because single-person households are the fastest-growing category in the United States. More than 34% of us live alone, compared to around 25% in 1990, and about 13% in 1960.
If you are like a growing number of people and you live an isolated life all by yourself, medical researchers warn, the situation may be damaging your health.
In fact, some investigators believe that social isolation is as deadly as smoking cigarettes and as threatening to health as obesity. Keep reading, there’s more. . .
Studies at the University of Chicago show that social isolation – not having enough contact with other people – can cause cellular changes that increase your risk of premature death by 14 percent.
According to this study – which included both lab tests and examinations of older people – the stress of loneliness can create fight-or-flight stress signaling among the cells in your body. The result of this stress is a change in the production of the immune system’s white blood cells.1
And it’s not a change for the better.
This response develops from epigenetic cellular alterations – shifts in the way certain genes are turned on and become active while others are turned off and stop functioning.
What all this means, according to the Chicago researchers, is that while some genes go into high gear, increasing inflammation that causes immune cells to become overactive, other genes are turned off and don’t function effectively.
The change in immune cell behavior is complicated, and I won’t attempt to comprehensively explain all the detailed ins and outs of what happens, but it boils down to this –
- Loneliness alters the types of neurotransmitters given off by the brain’s neurons.
- The neurotransmitters end up causing the release and circulation of immature immune cells called monocytes.
- The immature monocytes are not developed properly for fighting off viruses, which leaves you more vulnerable to viral illnesses – like colds and flu. But their hyperactivity causes inflammation. And this inflammation can be particularly damaging to your heart and arteries. And they may accelerate damage to the brain after a stroke.2
The Heart is Most at Risk
In a twist that’s ironic or poetic, depending on how you look at it, the heart – the traditional symbol of love – appears to suffer the most damage from loneliness.
Studies show that living a lonely life is particularly risky for people living with heart problems.
A study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that in people suffering from atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), living by yourself may significantly shorten life expectancy, leading to an earlier death from heart disease
This study analyzed the health of around 45,000 people over the course of four years.
During that time, among people suffering from heart problems, the risk of dying jumped by more than 30 percent among those who lived alone, compared to those who did not.3
“Living alone may be a marker of a stressful situation, such as social isolation due to work or personal reasons, which can influence biological effects on the cardiovascular system,” says researcher Jacob Udell, MD. “Also, patients who live alone may delay seeking medical attention for concerning symptoms, which can increase their risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke.”
Living alone can also have other health-compromising effects:
- A study in Australia shows that living alone makes you more likely to eat a less nutritious diet. The researchers found that people who are socially isolated eat fewer fruits, vegetables and fish.4
- Research at Brigham Young University (BYU) produced evidence that being lonely may be a greater health risk than being obese. And the researchers say the problem of loneliness is growing. This analysis, based on a review of 148 studies of isolation, found that loneliness may be connected to a 50 percent greater risk of premature death. (Admittedly, this is a larger effect than other research findings suggest.)5
Worse Than Smoking and Obesity?
According to BYU researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young, being lonely is the health equivalent of smoking about 15 cigarettes a day.6
Now, I don’t know if I’d agree that loneliness is as harmful as smoking. But I do know that if you feel isolated, you should make an effort to keep up your relationships with friends and family and do things like volunteer work in order to maintain your social contacts.
Take adult ed classes, join a local theater group or form a book club. Any of these activities can not only put more joy in your life, they may also extend your life. Joining a church is another good option. Most churches offer a range of social activities, volunteer work, and meetups for people of similar age and interests.
There’s an old proverb, “If you want a friend, be a friend.” In my experience, doing charitable work – such as volunteering in a food kitchen – is almost always more rewarding than you’d ever expect it to be, and leads to making new friends. It’s better than brooding about having no one to talk to and nothing to do.
If you still work, you might want to ask yourself if there’s any rush to retire, especially if work is your main social interaction with others. Many people are working longer these days anyway because they’re still in good health and can use the extra income. Social life is an added benefit.
On the flip side, retirement can be hard to adjust to – even if you have a mate – because suddenly you’re at loose ends and not used to having all the time – and no purpose.