The Dangers of Loneliness

All Rights Reserved

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