The Dangers of Loneliness

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Good for you if you exercise, watch your weight, and don't smoke -- but if you live in lonely solitude, your health may suffer anyway. Social isolation is increasingly seen as a health threat independent of physical condition. And yes, it's harmful enough to kill you.

Loneliness can wreck the body like a physical stress. Scientists believe that feeling disconnected and alone may trigger damaging inflammation and immune-system changes. Loneliness has also been shown to speed up the heart-health changes of aging.

How bad is it? A 2010 Brigham Young University review of studies involving more than 300,000 people concluded that loneliness is as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. In a 2012 Archives of Internal Medicine study, older adults who described themselves as lonely had a 56 percent higher risk of developing functional decline (such as losing the ability to walk or climb stairs). They had a 45 percent increased risk of dying.

Fortunately, you can take steps to buffer the negative effects of loneliness:

Fight Loneliness With the Power of Positive Thinking

Your outlook can offset some of the stress of loneliness, research shows. Lonely older adults who reframed health setbacks in a more positive light and didn't blame themselves for negative events were found to have fewer stress hormones than peers who did, according to a 2012 study.

What helps: Examples of the kind of thinking that seemed to protect the positive thinkers, according to Concordia University researchers: "Even if my health is in a very difficult condition, I can find something positive in life." "When I find it impossible to overcome a health problem, I try not to blame myself."

How Communal Living Can Help Fight Loneliness

Living alone can be hazardous to your health -- especially if you have heart problems or a high risk of developing them. When 45,000 such subjects, ages 45 and up, were followed for four years, those who lived alone were more likely to suffer cardiac events or to die. The risk was highest among 45- to 65-year-olds; in those over age 80, there was no associated heart risk to solo living.

What helps: Arrange a roommate or consider an assisted living situation if you have some existing health problems. Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston say part of the living-alone risk may come from not having someone to remind you to take medicines, heed worrisome symptoms, or practice good self-care. Midlife adults who live alone may also have a history of depression or relationship problems that worsens their heart risk, they say.

Spark Meaningful Connections to Fight Loneliness

You don't have to live alone to feel lonely. A study by the University of California, San Francisco, found that 43 percent of older adults felt lonely, although only 18 percent lived alone. Some 62 percent were married. You can lack meaningful interaction even when there's someone right in the room. Loneliness is a pervasive problem in long-term care facilities, the researchers noted, where residents don't necessarily engage with others.

What helps: For those in care communities, encourage participation in group activities or work with management to find (for yourself or for your loved one) a special interest, such as the arts or recording an oral history. You can also hire an elder companion, someone who comes into a residence of any type to talk, play cards, or otherwise connect. For lonely people of all ages, it can be life-changing to find (or maintain) an interest or volunteer activity that involves interacting with others.

Take the Initiative to Fight Loneliness

A common, sneak-up-on-you type of loneliness often befalls family caregivers in long-term care situations (such as dementia), grieving widows or widowers, or those with chronic health conditions. Once social, their circles gradually narrow. They decline invitations, drop out of book groups, go out less -- and eventually, the invites stop and you lose track of friends. Getting back in a social whirl can be harder as friends and relatives move away or die, or if you always relied on a late spouse to play social director.

What helps: Force yourself to be the initiator. You don't have to throw a gala party. But a few times a week, call or write an old friend, issue a low-risk invite for an outing like a walk or coffee, or socialize online. Most important, be persistent. You may be rebuffed by some, but others will be delighted you got in touch. Best: Sociability tends to snowball -- the more you reach out, the more you get back. In one Swedish study, apartment residents who participated in a social program of planned activities and outings found their social life tripled, beyond programmed events.

Get a Dog or Other Pet to Fight Loneliness

Remember how Tom Hanks treated a volleyball he named "Wilson" like a real person in the movie The Castaway? Nonhuman connections can be very powerful, says Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago. His research shows that creating humanlike connections with inanimate objects or pets actually offsets some of the emotional damage of loneliness. Other studies have found that, among people with low levels of human support, those with a high level of attachment to a pet have less loneliness and depression.

What helps: A dog, in particular, seems to ease the stress of loneliness. Dogs are eager to give and receive affection. And walking a dog helps lift depression and increases the odds of social contact with other humans. Pets are increasingly being used in nursing homes as "animal therapy." Some studies show that use of robotic pets with seniors has a similar effect in building attachment and decreasing loneliness.

Train Your Brain to Fight Loneliness

When most of us think of meditation, we imagine a solitary pastime. Yet mindfulness meditation training -- which teaches how to focus on body awareness and breathing to become more attentive to the present moment -- can reduce feelings of loneliness. More critically, the practice reduces blood markers for damaging inflammation associated with loneliness, say Carnegie Mellon University researchers. A team at UCLA also found that older adults who practiced mindfulness actually reduced the expression of damaging inflammatory genes.

What helps: Once you learn it, mindfulness isn't a big-time investment. Carnegie Mellon researchers, for example, taught 40 adults ages 55 to 85 the technique in a daylong retreat; the subjects then continued the practice for 30 minutes a day. Look for a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course through a university, hospital, or community center. A subset of this training targeting the bereaved is known as "mindful grieving" or "conscious grieving."

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

about 3 years, said...

Cancer kills much quicker and faster, but Loneliness is a very slow and painful death.

almost 4 years, said...

Hi everyone, Thanks for sharing about your experiences! We invite you join the conversations in our online support groups (which are better suited for back & forth, and ongoing conversations that aren't feedback on the article): Whether you post there or here though, please keep in mind our Community Code of Conduct: and Site Terms of Use: We want this to be a supportive, caring place where family caregivers can feel free to share about their experience without judgment and harsh feedback from others. Get in touch with our team if you have any questions: Thanks!

almost 4 years, said...

Someone commented about being widowed. This of course is a time of loss, of grieving and, of remembering. It sounds as if this person, who said something like "if I can't have my husband..then..." sets things up mentally to be lonely. I must be fair and say I am unsure how recently widowed this person was. That makes a great difference. A colleague of mine at Columbia University lost her husband of thirty five years suddenly, and it took her some months to even feel like eating regularly, doing chores, even putting one foot in front of the other. But you work at the process - move forward and be glad for what you still HAVE. Some people live all their lives and never know a happy marriage! This widow is lucky to have had someone who loved and cared for her all those years. As far as having your friendly overtures rebuffed - why not take them elsewhere? I visit people in nursing homes who have no family, for example. And I am always reminded when I go to the home that I could be in that spot - if I ever get depressed. I read a great deal. I do research work online. I e.mail, and keep a journal. I cook. I do crossword puzzles. I collect used clothing and launder, then donate it for needy people. I watch films and listen to good music. And yes, I love my dear cats too. So I know what a solace pets can be - and how unconditionally they love you. And the widow who commented may indeed have treatable depression. It is no source of shame to see a Doctor and find out if medications or, making lifestyle changes: like exercises (modified for your disability) or a different diet will help you feel more positive. Your life is not over because your life partner has died. Of course, no one is denying that widowhood can be terribly sad - but that person you shared a marriage with must have, long ago... loved the life IN YOU - and to honor them, you may wish to prayerfully think about the best, wisest, most self-enhancing ways to continue? And never, ever give've probably got friends you don't even realize are there!

almost 4 years, said...

I live alone because my husband passed away, and I have no human family. And since I can't have my husband, then I'd rather just live alone with my little precious family of loving, attentive cats. ............The problem is: I have no visitors and no friends to talk with, or to share anything with.....but NOT for lack of trying again and again and again. People have their own lives, families, and established friends, so they have no need for me.......especially since I have the stigmas of being widowed AND partially disabled. .............When I need to discuss a problem or ask advice or suggestion, or to express my feelings, I have no one. When I am sick, I have no one to take care of me. When I need to get diagnostic tests done that require a driver, I have no one. And one time I was refused a test no matter how much I pleaded to have it done. Finally, tearfully I said: "I can't force someone at gun point to drive me!" .......................And besides ALL of this, I found people to be indifferent to insensitive to downright cruel to me about my unwanted situation! No "helping" orgs. will help. My Church will not help me. And right now I am VERY disgusted! I called to have a LOT of donations picked up for my Church's rummage sale, and the 2 pick-up men were not satisfied with my items!...which they did not even go through! Lazy perhaps?................................I don't know, but these -and SO much more- are the issues of being alone..... and lonely but only for my loving husband.

almost 4 years, said...

I like living alone. I just my 75th birthday. I am widowed 15 years. I am busy with antiques buying and selling, I have done all my life. My Son said tells me he loves me but I do not believe him. I love him very much and I help him financially as best I can. I feel that is my responsibly as a Mother. I

about 4 years, said...

Religious faith is important. Time on your own, as distinguished from LONELINESS (looking for someone or something to make you feel better) is a different thing, entirely. I suppose I was 'lucky' to have had a dysfunctional birth family in my growing up years. So, writing, music, meditation, Tai Chi, prayer, creative pursuits all became my friends, at first. I learned to rely on them, and my INNER resources for sustenance and support. And now, I also have great friends. At 66 I am blessed with Ric, my husband..but I still read, meditate, write, cook, etc. I am also fortunate in that I do not suffer from clinical depression or dementia, which robs a person of his or her ability to reflect and note that things ARE deteriorating. Still, a pastor, a physician, a social worker (we are blessed to have the Sirovich Center and Hudson Guild nearby) can offer resources and ideas about how to cope. Of course, I am in NYC so that means there are many avenues I can explore. But other locales around the country also have church groups, senior advocacy, pastoral counseling, and medical doctors. I have been a writer for many years, thus I take comfort in journaling - writing down how I feel and what I think and observe. That always helps me to get, and keep things in better focus. During one of the worst periods of my life after two fires in buildings where I was involved (and a suspect in each fire for a horrific brief time!) I would have lost my mind if not for my Pastor. He helped me to re-locate my faith, which I had not lost, but in the stress and hurt and anger of those nightmare days, merely misplaced. Bottom line: We can cope, by reaching out for help, by making sure we are physically well ourselves with proper food and rest, and by creating a network of support. It may not be easy to begin (beginnings are always tough, I have found) but well worth the effort. I myself was surprised after the fires to discover that I not only had friends I did not know about, but that they were not just willing, but eager to step in and 'get my back' as I re-tooled and re-grouped. I will love them forever. And most important, He was there to sustain me. It was I who forgot Him in the worst, darkest moments - not the other way around! We may not always admit it, but often these tests are sent to us, and loneliness and isolation can be very fertile ground for personal growth - depending on what we do in response. I remember a fellow AA buddy say to me, "Are you a vicTIM, or a vicTOR?" Hmm....

about 4 years, said...

Man is always lonely for the simple reason nothing is going to come along with him when he finally departs. Thoughts occupy his mind and keep him busy. We call the man as a social animal. True . He wants to spend time talking and doing things with others. In the bargain no one is happy including himself. He loves none including himself. God is the only friend who listens optly to your bickerings silently acepting what all you say.w/o questioning your judgement. What we have to do to remain happy is not to do anything which causes inconvenience & discomfort to others. It should come natturally with the gradual progress you make in this direction. You are not alone and always GOD is with you as a Friend, Father and Mother etc., You will never feel loely when you realize GOD is always with you.

over 4 years, said...

I need a lot of alone time, and rarely feel lonely. There are lots of memories to relive, and even though he will have been gone for 21 years this November, I still feel very close to my father. I think of him or talk to him every day. He was much older than most other contemporaries' fathers, and lived to be 90.Papa was only 5 years younger than my step-grandfather, but he was so wise and so loving. He told my sister and me that he would love us forever after. I believe him. I also read, communicate in Italian, which I am still learning, with a cousin in Italy via e-mail almost daily. She sends me books about the culture of the region she lives in, which is the same one in which my father was born, and I read them. I am learning about the culture and furthering my knowledge of Italian (and also picking up a bit of dialect) by my reading. I have learned to use the dictionary a bit less, which is a good thing, because my poor dictionaries need to be replaced; they are falling apart. I use lavender oil as cologne. It is very calming. Needlework of some kind is also a pastime when the mood strikes. The hard thing is getting used to my husband being in the house all the time. He has lived in the house next door which he inherited from his parents for about 5 years, and we were very happy with the arrangement of visiting back and forth but each living in our own worlds. His COPD has worsened and his medications and diet need to be closely monitored now, so he has to be here. He has become very forgetful, as well as hard of hearing, and his mind is becoming vague. We argue a lot about the regimen the doctors have prescribed for him, and which he does not want to follow. He talks endlessly about the same old things, and does not like to be interrupted. I am working on the art of going inside my own mind to get away from his endless complaining and neediness. I have had to take over the bill paying and house maintenance that he can no longer perform. There are times when I am so stressed I wish I could just walk away. The last thing I need is more human interaction or anything such as a dog that needs to be cared for. All human relationships require becoming involved in others' lives. I try to avoid them. To those who live alone, I would say, nurture the life of the mind. Be your own company. In the end we are all alone. It is best to make your peace with that fact.

over 4 years, said...

Loneliness does not cause depression!! Depression and or other mental problems cause loneliness!1 You have it backwards! Physically and mentally healthy people are never lonely!! People love to be with them! Personally, I love, treasure, and enjoy my alone times. Some people are lonely even when they are not alone. I sympathize with such people and try to encourage them. God loves us all and especially those who feel lonely. God bless you all, Bobbie Sena

over 4 years, said...

As a full-time caregiver I don't have a love life because most men don't want to deal with the situation. I can't sleep over or have long lunches, and he certainly can't hang out in our home. Respite care is expensive, so I have to use that free time to handle business. I have family and neighbors in my life, but I miss having a relationship. I'm still a vital woman and I feel like I am aging faster than I expected. Toys and chat lines are a poor substitute for hugs and kisses. IMVU's 3D chat line is kind of fun but it takes a while to find the right "friend", just like in the real dating scene.

over 4 years, said...

Just the idea others recognize it helped. I forwarded it to a friend who use to discuss this with me. She now has a significant other & is nolonger lonely, but she still liked the article. I will try some of the suggestions as I live alone, too.

over 4 years, said...

Some of us like to be alone, if we dont go out we dont pick up the viral infections or bugs going around. I have always led the life off on my own. Some off us get bored quick, i dont, i can always find something to do. If i get bored, i change what i can do. There is always something to do and as my family come around quite often, i dont get bored. Company is good sometimes,but too much i find it difficult to deal with. Not everyone is the same, whether it causes health problems or not. In the UK people are alive longer, and the government is trying to keep us alive longer as well. Cant do this or do that, oh boy,we only live once and we all have to die at some point. Enjoy life whilst you can.x

over 4 years, said...

Hmm if you have a pet then you have the problem of the pets illness and death which results to more depression. Dont forget that dogs only last up to 13 years. X

over 4 years, said...

There are help lines in the phone book. Our church has a St. Stephen ministry and I'm sure most churches will have someone who can reach out to the lonely.

over 4 years, said...

It reiterated some things I already knew, but forget to do. I also send these to my adult chidren sometimes.