Loneliness Can Kill You. Don’t Let It.

Health and medicine explained.
Aug. 23 2013 12:15 PM

Loneliness Is Deadly

Social isolation kills more people than obesity does—and it’s just as stigmatized.

130822_MEDEX_LonelinessIllo

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Over the winter I moved from New York City to Portland, Ore. The reasons for my move were purely logical. New York was expensive and stressful. Portland, I reasoned, would offer me the space and time to do my work.

Upon arriving, I rented a house and happily went out in search of "my people." I went to parks, bookstores, bars, on dates. I even tried golfing. It wasn't that I didn't meet people. I did. I just felt no connection to any of them.

Once social and upbeat, I became morose and mildly paranoid. I knew I needed to connect to people to feel better, but I felt as though I physically could not handle any more empty interactions. I woke up in the night panicked. In the afternoon, loneliness came in waves like a fever. I had no idea how to fix it.

Feeling uncertain, I began to research loneliness and came across several alarming recent studies. Loneliness is not just making us sick, it is killing us. Loneliness is a serious health risk. Studies of elderly people and social isolation concluded that those without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely.

The increased mortality risk is comparable to that from smoking. And loneliness is about twice as dangerous as obesity.

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Social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes, and heart disease. Loneliness is breaking our hearts, but as a culture we rarely talk about it.

Loneliness has doubled: 40 percent of adults in two recent surveys said they were lonely, up from 20 percent in the 1980s.

All of our Internet interactions aren’t helping and may be making loneliness worse. A recent study of Facebook users found that the amount of time you spend on the social network is inversely related to how happy you feel throughout the day.

In a society that judges you based on how expansive your social networks appear, loneliness is difficult to fess up to. It feels shameful.

About a decade ago, my mom was going through a divorce from my step-father. Lonely and desperate for connection, she called a cousin she hadn’t talked to in several years. On the phone, her cousin was derisive: “Don’t you have any friends?”

While dealing with my own loneliness in Portland I often found myself thinking, "If I were a better person I wouldn't be lonely."

“Admitting you are lonely is like holding a big L up on your forehead,” says John T. Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who studies how loneliness and social isolation affect people’s health.

He admitted that on an airplane he once became acutely embarrassed while holding a copy of his own book, which had the word Loneliness emblazoned on the front cover. He had the impulse to turn the cover inside-out so that people couldn’t see it. “For the first time I actually experienced the feeling of being lonely and everyone knowing it,” he says.

After the public learned of Stephen Fry’s suicide attempt last year, the beloved British actor wrote a blog post about his fight with depression. He cited loneliness as the worst part of his affliction.

“Lonely? I get invitation cards through the post almost every day. I shall be in the Royal Box at Wimbledon and I have serious and generous offers from friends asking me to join them in the South of France, Italy, Sicily, South Africa, British Columbia, and America this summer. I have two months to start a book before I go off to Broadway for a run of Twelfth Night there.

I can read back that last sentence and see that, bipolar or not, if I’m under treatment and not actually depressed, what the fuck right do I have to be lonely, unhappy, or forlorn? I don’t have the right. But there again I don’t have the right not to have those feelings. Feelings are not something to which one does or does not have rights.

In the end loneliness is the most terrible and contradictory of my problems.”

Most of us know what it is like to be lonely in a room full of people, which is the same reason even a celebrity can be deeply lonely. You could be surrounded by hundreds of adoring fans, but if there is no one you can rely on, no one who knows you, you will feel isolated.

In terms of human interactions, the number of people we know is not the best measure. In order to be socially satisfied, we don’t need all that many people. According to Cacioppo the key is in the quality, not the quantity of those people. We just need several on whom we can depend and who depend on us in return.

As a culture we obsess over strategies to prevent obesity. We provide resources to help people quit smoking. But I have never had a doctor ask me how much meaningful social interaction I am getting. Even if a doctor did ask, it is not as though there is a prescription for meaningful social interaction.

Both Denmark and Great Britain are devoting more time and energy to finding solutions and staging interventions for lonely people, particularly the elderly.

When we are lonely, we lose impulse control and engage in what scientists call “social evasion.” We become less concerned with interactions and more concerned with self-preservation, as I was when I couldn’t even imagine trying to talk to another human. Evolutionary psychologists speculate that loneliness triggers our basic, fight vs. flight survival mechanisms, and we stick to the periphery, away from people we do not know if we can trust.

In one study, Cacioppo measured brain activity during the sleep of lonely and nonlonely people. Those who were lonely were far more prone to micro awakenings, which suggest the brain is on alert for threats throughout the night, perhaps just as earlier humans would have needed to be when separated from their tribe.

One of the reasons we avoid discussing loneliness is that fixing it obviously isn’t a simple endeavor.

Even though the Internet has possibly contributed to our isolation, it might hold a key to fixing it. Cacioppo is excited by online dating statistics showing that couples who found each other online and stayed together shared more of a connection and were less likely to divorce than couples who met offline. If these statistics hold up, it would stand to reason friendships could also be found in this way, easing those whose instincts tell them to stay on the periphery back into the world with common bonds forged over the Internet.

Me? I moved back to New York.

Jessica Olien is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow her on Twitter at @jessicaolien.

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