How loneliness harms our health (2023)

How loneliness harms our health (1)

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Even before the pandemic, there was a "loneliness epidemic" affecting physical health and life expectancy.

Credit...Lila Barth for the New York Times

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VonJuan Leland

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You haven't seen friends the way you used to in two years. He missed his colleagues, even the barista on the street.

where you alone are we all been

Neuroscientists think this is what happens in your brain.

The human brain, which evolved to seek safety in numbers, registers loneliness as a threat. Centers that monitor danger, including the amygdala, kick into action, triggering a "fight-or-flight" release of stress hormones. Your heart rate increases, blood pressure and blood sugar rise to provide you with energy when you need it. Your body produces extra inflammatory cells to repair tissue damage and prevent infection, and fewer antibodies to fight viruses. Subconsciously you begin to see other people more as potential threats, sources of rejection or apathy, and less as friends, remedies for your loneliness.

And in a cruel twist, your protective measures to isolate you from the coronavirus may actually make you less resistant or less susceptible to the vaccine because you have fewer antibodies to fight it.

New York City, where a million people live alone, has been an experience of loneliness for two years: nine million people are isolated with smartphones and 24/7 home delivery, cut off from places they used to be The therapists were hired, as tens of thousands of New Yorkers mourned the loss of a best friend, a spouse, a partner, a parent.

For Julie Anderson, a documentary filmmaker, it happens every day at 5pm. – the time she was contemplating dinner with friends, making plans for the night and now relegating herself to watching TV alone. Stephen Lipman, a Bronx visual artist, feels it in his idle hours: once a precious moment to work on his art, now without ideas or motivation. Eduardo Lazo, whose wife died of pancreatic cancer early in the pandemic, feels every minute is the end of the world they created together.

"Who doesn't see suicide as an option at this point in life?" he says. "But I'm religious and that would deprive me of any chance to be with my wife or loved ones when I die. I can't risk that possibility.

Robin Solod, who lives alone on Manhattan's Upper East Side, thought she was an unlikely candidate for loneliness.

"I was too busy talking," she said of her life before the pandemic. "Chicken soup at the Mansion Diner. We went to Zabar's on the West Side every week, ate a bagel, sat down, talked. who was home I've never been home. Then all of a sudden it all stops."

As some pandemic restrictions are finally lifted and New York returns to some semblance of normalcy, one can only marvel at the lingering impact of two years of extended isolation and the loneliness that has come with it. Some people cut off almost all physical interactions, others were more social, but few made it through the various obstacles and spikes without feeling the loss of the human connections they lacked.

For Solod, who believed that "people are my air," one of the biggest blows came just before the pandemic when she had to be separated from her faithful companion, a rescued Shih Tzu named Annie. Ms Solod, 67, has health issues that keep her in a wheelchair and she eventually found she could no longer look after the dog.

"Now Annie lives on Long Island and it feels very lonely without her," she said. "I've never had a dog. The environment I've always lived in was my dog, the park, people with dogs in the building. That was the connection. Everything has changed."

biology of an epidemic


How loneliness harms our health (3)

Loneliness, as defined by mental health professionals, is a gap between the level of connection you want and the level of connection you have. It is not the same as social isolation, which is codified in the social sciences as a measure of a person's contacts. Loneliness is a subjective feeling. You can have a lot of contact and still be alone, or you can be completely content with yourself.

For many New Yorkers, the pandemic has brought a lot of contact with other people, in crowded apartments, at work or on the subway. But the contacts weren't necessarily satisfying or desirable, and perhaps felt dangerous. This is also a condition for solitude.

In small doses, like hunger or thirst, loneliness is a healthy sign that something is missing and you need to get what you need. But prolonged loneliness can be detrimental not only to mental health, but also to physical health.

Even before the pandemic, US surgeon General Vivek Murthy said the country was experiencing a "loneliness epidemic', driven by the fast pace of life and the ubiquity of technology in all our social interactions. With this acceleration, he said, efficiency and convenience have "overcome" the time-consuming mess of real relationships.

The result is a public health crisis on the scale of an opioid or obesity epidemic, said Dr. Murthy. in oneStudy 2018According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in five Americans said they always or often felt lonely or socially isolated.

The pandemic has only reinforced those feelings. in a recentsearch the whole cityAccording to the New York City Department of Health, 57% of people said they had felt lonely at some or most of the time, and two-thirds said they had felt socially isolated in the past month.

"Loneliness," said Dr. Murthy, "has real implications for our health and well-being."

Being alone, like other forms of stress, increases the risk of emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Less obviously, it also puts people at greater risk of seemingly unrelated physical illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, high blood pressure, dementia, and premature death. insidelaborexperiment, lonely people exposed to a cold virus were more likely to develop symptoms than people who weren't feeling lonely.

an often quoted oneMeta-Analyseby Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University compared the risk effects of loneliness, isolation and poor social connections to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

"The general public is realizing how loneliness can affect our stress levels, emotional or mental health," said Dr. Holt-Lunstad. "But we probably don't see the strong evidence of the effects on our physical health."

We also do not recognize the economic costs.

Social isolation and loneliness is associated with an additional $6.7 billion in Medicare spending and costs employers more than $154 billion annually in stress-related absenteeism and more in employee turnover, according to studies.AARPand the insurance giantZigna.

Still, culture has slowly moved to deal with the epidemic, Murthy said, treating loneliness as an uncomfortable emotion rather than a public health crisis. "There are more adults who struggle with loneliness than with diabetes," he said. "However, consider the discrepancy in the attention we give to these two conditions."



Mrs. Solod wasn't worried about that before the pandemic. She lived alone, which put her at greater risk of isolation, but she was always surrounded by people. "A million friends," he said.

He owned an electrolysis business, cut hair at Bergdorf Goodman, and held a real estate license. She even worked as a hostess at Chippendale.

"It was more than dynamic," he said.

But New York can destroy someone's social network. Friends bury themselves at work, move, find lovers, change dog parks. Men are more likely to be socially isolated, while women are more likely to be lonely.

For people over 60, like Solod, who are one of the highest risk groups, isolation often begins with health.

Six years ago, Ms. Solod began treatment for lung cancer and then multiple myeloma. Suddenly, her life revolved around medical treatments, not socializing, and she needed a wheelchair to get around.

Despite this, he continued to enjoy the city with friends or with his mother, who lived nearby. "I could hear my mother's voice, 'Don't stay home,'" she said. Then, a year before the pandemic, her mother died. It was a bond he could not replace, a role no one else could fill. He still had plenty of social contacts, but he lacked a meaningful connection that he needed. The name of this gap is loneliness.

"The Jewish holidays were the worst," he said, as all his losses seemed to be piling up. "I already had a life. She had a husband, she had a mother, neighbors, friends and relatives. Likewise, when the focus of the mother, that central person, disappears, it ceases to exist. When this is over, nothing can bring the holidays back."

Then came the pandemic.

loneliness in the genes


Turhan Canli, a professor of integrative neuroscience at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, wondered if there's a gene that turns on or off when a person is alone. Previous researchers have shown that loneliness, like other forms of stress, is associated with depression, inflammation, cognitive decline and heart disease. But how? Which pathways were opened or closed when people were alone, which genes were turned on or off? InRush University Aging and Memory Projectin Chicago, he harvested brain tissue from older adults who were asked questions about their loneliness in their later years.

Their analysis provided insight into the physical and cellular nature of loneliness. found it differentDifferences between the brains of lonely and non-lonely people. Some genes that encourage cancer cells to multiply were more activated in lonely people, while genes that regulate inflammation were turned off.

"We found hundreds of genes that were expressed differently depending on how lonely these people were feeling," he said. "These genes have been linked to cancer, inflammation, heart disease and cognitive function."

He cautioned that, like many studies of loneliness, his could not prove that loneliness caused these differences in gene expression; it may just have been more common in people who have had them.


Lose. Anderson, the documentary filmmaker, described nights at her apartment where she felt so oppressively alone that she didn't answer the phone, even though the conversation might lift her spirits. "You would think he would pick up the phone and call people," he said. "I feel like the loneliness is so hard that I'm so sad that when I call someone they don't want to talk to me. It's exactly what I'm supposed to do. I'm just not in the mood.

For Solod, who was struggling before Covid, the pandemic has brought several new levels of loneliness. Chance encounters with neighbors, shopkeepers, waiters at your favorite restaurant or diner came to an abrupt end. There were the friends who used to visit her, but suddenly it was just voices on the phone.

In December 2021, he was admitted to the Covid unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for two weeks to receive treatment for cancer and the coronavirus. Since that experience, she has said, "I'm scared."

Even when she saw the neighbors returning to any social activity, she remained extremely cautious. Sometimes he would wheel his chair into the building's lobby to tend to the dogs, then come back upstairs missing his own dog. And always, he said, he was aware of how many people die.

"I talk to my friends all the time," he says. "You call me. But it's something very different, that kind of connection. You don't have the same emotions, the same feelings as when you see someone in person. And when you can hug someone, it's also very different."

The pandemic has underscored the importance of even casual relationships in emotional well-being, said Anne Marie Albano, director of theColumbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. "Even small things like making room for someone to sit next to you on the subway or having someone do that for you, those things just don't happen," Albano said. "And that causes a person who tends to feel lonely to feel lonely more intensely."

The new normal?


Even as the number of cases in New York remains well below its peak, Solod's loneliness has not abated. In fact, she said, seeing people go about their business without masks made her feel even more isolated.

"A lot of people I know are like, 'Oh, don't worry,' and they start quoting the mayor and talking about the kids at school. But even putting cancer and my illness aside, I would say I'm still very scared of the virus. I don't want to have to go back to that world of isolation."

During the Iranian New Year in late March, an Iranian friend brought her food, for which she was grateful. "But people don't like to stay," he said. “It's almost like we're rooted in sales. It's a short hello and see you later. In my world, nobody really does.

Even if life returns to the way it was before the pandemic, it's unclear how much the loneliness of the past two years will diminish or what scars it might leave behind. In accordance withStephanie Cacioppo, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, like other forms of stress, loneliness can leave permanent damage.

A leading indicator is life on college campuses, said Dr. Cacioppo. “Now that the students have returned, we hear a lot about loneliness and isolation combined with disappointment. College isn't what the kids expected.” So social isolation has been reduced, but a form of loneliness has remained, in the gap between the social life people want and the social life they have.

The moonshot against loneliness


A paradox: People are now more connected than ever, via phones, social media, Zoom and more, but loneliness continues to grow. Among the most digitally connected youth and young people, lonelinessalmost doubledin prevalence between 2012 and 2018, coinciding with the explosion in social media use.

Four years ago the UK Government appointed aMinister of Solitudeto address growing public concerns. One city put up "Happy to Talk" benches with signs that read, "Sit here if you don't mind if someone stops to say hello." The model became popular and spread across England, Canada and Poland.

In the United States, the health care system has focused on the social isolation of older people, but has been slower to address loneliness as a broad public health problem.

However, there are interventions that can help, said Dr. Cacioppo.

"For years, people thought the best thing they could do for a lonely person was to support them," he said. “In fact, we've discovered that it's as much about receiving as it is about giving back. Therefore, the best thing you can do for someone who is lonely is not to help them, but to ask them for help. This is how you give them a sense of worth and a chance to be selfless. Even when we receive the best care, we still feel lonely when we have nothing to give back. Attention is extremely valuable, but it is not enough.”

He also suggested a regular practice of gratitude and altruism that counteracts the mindset of seeing others as a threat.

But the real cures for the problem of loneliness, Dr. Murthy, must address not only lonely people, but also the culture that makes them lonely.

"We urge people to exercise, eat healthily and take their medication," he said. “But if we really want to be healthy, happy and fulfilled as a society, we need to redesign our lives around people. Right now our lives are centered around work.”

The US Surgeon General, this is a call to reverse the cultural patterns that have been building for decades and are benefiting some of the country's largest corporations.

Robert Putnam, in his 2000 book Bowling Alone: ​​The Collapse and Revival of American Community, chronicled a steady erosion of social ties since the 1950s.

Hannah Arendt called widespread loneliness a basic condition of totalitarianism.

dr Murthy's goal required a complete shift in societal priorities. But the alternative, he said, is to literally kill people. Connected people live longer, happier and healthier lives. So changes are needed, starting with our homes and workplaces.

"We have this powerful power to improve the health and wellness in your relationships," he said. "But how often do we invest in it?"

For Robin Solod, alone in her East Side apartment, it's a need she's met the hard way.

She's always too busy walking around to think about how much she relies on her connections with people and how fragile they can be, she said. "But if you take that away, what's left? What are you replacing it with?

She answered her own question. "Without the connection to other people," he said, "you have bupkis."


Continue reading the main story


How is loneliness damaging our health? ›

Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.

What is the answer to the problem of loneliness? ›

The answer to the loneliness problem is social connection. But it's not just the amount of social connection that matters. After all, you can be married and lonely. You can be constantly surrounded by people and lonely.

How does loneliness impact us physically and mentally? ›

Loneliness can lead to various psychiatric disorders like depression, alcohol abuse, child abuse, sleep problems, personality disorders and Alzheimer's disease.

Why does loneliness hurt so much? ›

It is not surprising that loneliness hurts. A brain imaging study showed that feeling ostracized actually activates our neural pain matrix. In fact, several studies show that ostracizing others hurts us as much as being ostracized ourselves.

Why does loneliness affect me so much? ›

What happens to your body when you're lonely? “When you're experiencing loneliness, your levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, go up,” she says. “Cortisol can impair cognitive performance, compromise the immune system, and increase your risk for vascular problems, inflammation and heart disease.”

What does God say about loneliness? ›

Psalm 34:18 tells us that “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” In Psalm 25:16-17, the writer gives us a prayer to God in a time of loneliness: “I am lonely and afflicted, relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish.”

What is a simple solution to loneliness? ›

Many people will use coloring books, paint-by-numbers, or journaling to diminish feelings of loneliness, stress, anxiety, and depression (Hwang et al., 2020). Just like physical activity, creative activities boosts our mood and can help alleviate our feelings of loneliness.

How do I accept being alone? ›

Short-term tips to get you started
  1. Avoid comparing yourself to others. ...
  2. Take a step back from social media. ...
  3. Take a phone break. ...
  4. Carve out time to let your mind wander. ...
  5. Take yourself on a date. ...
  6. Get physical. ...
  7. Spend time with nature. ...
  8. Lean into the perks of being alone.

What happens if you are alone for too long? ›

"Lacking encouragement from family or friends, those who are lonely may slide into unhealthy habits," Valtorta says. "In addition, loneliness has been found to raise levels of stress, impede sleep and, in turn, harm the body. Loneliness can also augment depression or anxiety."

What loneliness does to your brain? ›

"Loneliness can change the neurochemistry of the brain, turning off the dopamine neurons, which trigger the reward response, and causing some degeneration in the brain when the reward response is not activated," says Katherine Peters, MD, PhD, FAAN, associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Duke University.

What does loneliness feel like in the body? ›

Insomnia, disrupted sleep or other sleep-related issues may all be physical symptoms of loneliness. Another sign is sleeping too much; often when people are feeling sad, or in this case lonely, many turn to sleep as a way to block out how they feel.

What can lonely people do? ›

17 Easy Things To Do When You're Feeling Lonely
  • Admit you're lonely. ...
  • Remind yourself it's not just you. ...
  • Be realistic. ...
  • Don't deny or distance. ...
  • Write down positive memories. ...
  • Go for a walk. ...
  • Pick up the phone. ...
  • Talk to a mental health professional.
Mar 30, 2020

What is the root emotion of loneliness? ›

Some of the most common causes of loneliness include: Social Anxiety, Isolation, Difficulty with Assertiveness, and Poor Self-awareness. Common types or forms of loneliness include: Lack of Physical Connection, Lack of Common Interests, Lack of Shared Values, Lack of Emotional Intimacy, and Lack of Self-Intimacy.

What is a deep sense of loneliness? ›

Defining Chronic Loneliness

You don't have any close friends. The people you see are casual acquaintances you can spend time with, but you don't have a deep connection with them. You experience feelings of isolation even when you're surrounded by other people or in large groups.

What is a lonely person called? ›

loner. noun. someone who likes to be alone and has few friends.

How does the Bible fight loneliness? ›

Praying, journaling, reading Scripture and even sitting in silence with God can help you refocus on Him and depend more on Him. Having a strong connection with God enables you to cope better with feelings of loneliness by focusing your attention away from yourself and onto God.

How do you survive loneliness? ›

How can I manage loneliness?
  1. Take it slow.
  2. Make new connections.
  3. Try peer support.
  4. Try to open up.
  5. Talking therapies.
  6. Social care.
  7. Be careful when comparing yourself to others.
  8. Look after yourself.

Is it possible to cure loneliness by yourself? ›

The process of positive self-talk takes practice, but it can be part of a simple cure for loneliness. If you decide to seek out online therapy, then you'll learn all about these positive self-talk techniques. It's a good way for combating negative feelings and it can significantly improve your life.

Can loneliness change your personality? ›

They have found increased levels of loneliness to predict higher levels of neuroticism and lower levels of both extraversion and conscientiousness 15 years later, while only neuroticism at baseline was predictive of later levels of loneliness.

Why can't I handle being alone? ›

Autophobia, or monophobia, makes you feel extremely anxious when you're alone. This fear of being alone can affect your relationships, social life and career. You may also have a fear of abandonment that stems from a traumatic childhood experience.

What power does being alone have? ›

Being alone can help you build mental strength.

But, solitude may be just as important. Studies show the ability to tolerate alone time has been linked to increased happiness, better life satisfaction, and improved stress management. People who enjoy alone time experience less depression.

What is the root of loneliness? ›

What causes loneliness? There is not one single cause of loneliness. Loneliness can often be a result of life changes or circumstances that include living alone, changing your living arrangements, having financial problems, or death of a loved one.

What are 3 things you could suggest someone do when experiencing loneliness? ›

11 things to do if you're feeling lonely
  • Start with small talk. Small talk gets a bad wrap, but it's actually a big part of helping break the ice. ...
  • Hang out with like-minded people. ...
  • Get active. ...
  • Jump online. ...
  • Give 'yes' a go. ...
  • Back yourself to fly solo. ...
  • Sit with the feeling of loneliness. ...
  • Write it down.

How does loneliness shorten life? ›

Biologists have shown that feelings of loneliness trigger the release of stress hormones that in turn are associated with higher blood pressure, decreased resistance to infection and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

How do lonely people behave? ›

When someone feels lonely they are more likely to try to distract themselves with the other things in their lives. So if your colleague is always talking about their stamp collection, or always flying away on exotic solo city breaks rather than spending weekends at home, they might be feeling alone.

What is at the core of loneliness? ›

The core of loneliness: lack of pleasurable engagement--more so than painful disconnection--predicts social impairment, depression onset, and recovery from depressive disorders among adolescents. J Pers Assess. 2002 Dec;79(3):472-91.

What are the four types of loneliness? ›

Loneliness affects people in different ways, and for this reason there are four distinct types of loneliness identified by psychologists: emotional, social, situational and chronic.

What is the antidote for loneliness? ›

Connect to the community: In addition to romantic relationships and friendships, there is a sense of connection we experience, even with strangers, that's very valuable and makes you feel like you're a part of something bigger. Reach out to a neighbor or sit outside to be around your community.

What is the best advice that you can give to someone suffering from loneliness? ›

Be there. Simply being there for them can let them know that someone cares. Don't be afraid to ask them how they are feeling or if there's anything you can do to help. Having someone who is willing to listen could be a great comfort.

What to say to a person who feels lonely? ›

Try to normalize loneliness; remind your friend that lots of people feel lonely at times in their lives and that there's nothing wrong with that. Loneliness is a normal human emotion. Try saying something like “We all need friends. I'm here for you.”

What age does loneliness peak? ›

Some studies show a linear decline, some an inverted U-pattern (peaking in middle age), and others a U-pattern (peaking in early and late adulthood). Our previous study found that loneliness was highest in the late 20s, mid-50s, and late 80s.

How do you push through loneliness? ›

  1. Recognize that you are not alone in feeling lonely. ...
  2. Take stock of connections you already have. ...
  3. Take some time to relax and slow down. ...
  4. Reconnect with self-love and appreciation. ...
  5. Perform anonymous acts of kindness. ...
  6. Give back to your neighbors and community. ...
  7. Join a club to connect with like-minded people.
Jul 15, 2022

How long does loneliness last? ›

Although it's natural to feel empty or numb from time to time, these feelings can sometimes linger for two weeks or more. Acknowledging how you feel and setting a few self-care strategies in place can help. Seeking professional help is also advisable.


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