Can loneliness affect your health?

The answer is quite certainly yes. And the research causes us think about what it really means to be lonely.

In a 2005 article in the journal Health Psychology (Vol. 24, No.3), Carnegie Mellon Univserity professor Sarah D. Pressman (and colleagues) described the effects of both "loneliness" and "social network size" on immune responses to influenza vaccinations, focusing on the reactions of a group of college freshmen. The "competence" of your body's immune system can be measured in terms of how well it reacts to a vaccination. The quality of that reaction can then be compared to other social and psychological factors.

What Pressman et al found is that social, emotional and psychological factors do in fact make a difference in how well an individual's body reacts to viral threats. While that is of interest by itself, it is not an entirely new finding. What is more generally of interest in this article is the general discussion of loneliness, social isolation and health.

Reviewing the literature, Pressman's research team noted that loneliness and social isolation have both been found to be associated with a variety of negative health effects. They went on to note that loneliness and social isolation are not at all the same thing. Loneliness is a feeling or a perception. Sometimes, people will "feel" lonely, even though they have a lot of friends and enjoy a lot of social interaction. Sometimes people who tend to isolate themselves will not feel lonely at all.

In this type of research, the real question is "how does this happen?" How could feeling lonely or being isolated actually affect your body's immune response or other health related measures?

What Pressman's team found is that feeling lonely is more significant than actually being isolated. The feeling of loneliness is a more consistent predictor of disturbed sleep, depression and psychological distress. The general measure of psychological "stress" or distress was the factor most highly related to compromised immune function. Loneliness and isolation were both related to negative health effects, but it seems that feeling lonely is worse than being isolated. For those who felt lonely, it could be seen that stress factors affected their health and that the effects were more serious. The negative health effects associated with actually being alone were not as significant, but it was not actually clear as to why isolation makes a difference. It wasn't because those who were alone were distressed or upset.

In other words, those who felt lonely were more distressed, and their stress or distress could be linked to the negative health effects. That's how it happens. The negative health effects of being alone were not caused by or related to stress. Maybe those in isolation don't take care of themselves as well, or maybe they have more bad health habits. That is not clear from this study.

What we learn from this study is that emotional, psychological and social factors can indeed affect one's health. This is well known. We also learn that how this happens is not a simple equation. The study confirms that "stress," generally defined, is an important factor in wellness and well-being. The study also supports the idea that how you feel about things, and how you perceive and interpret events is probably more important than the events and experiences themselves.

You don't have any friends? Well, that's not good, but it's not as bad as feeling like you don't have any friends, and it's not as bad a being upset because you feel like you have no friends.

The underlying message here is that emotional and psychological well-being are critical and essential health factors. Everyday, you need to make certain that you get enough fiber in your diet. In the same way, it is critically important that you obtain enough joy and that you derive enough pleasure, meaning and satisfaction from life.

Loneliness causes stress. Stress will kill you. Social isolation is not good. Isolation is not as harmful as feeling lonely, but it is still not a place you want to go.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi,Ph.D.