Nearly half of all Americans today say they are lonely. Why is that so, and what are the consequences? Here’s everything you need to know:
How is loneliness defined?
Loneliness isn’t determined by the actual number of friends or social contacts a person has. Social science researchers define loneliness as the emotional state created when people have fewer social contacts and meaningful relationships than they would like — relationships that make them feel known and understood. Essentially, if you feel lonely, you are lonely. One out of two Americans now falls into this category. In a recent study of 20,000 people by the health insurance company Cigna, about 47 percent of respondents reported often feeling alone or left out. Thirteen percent said there were zero people who knew them well. The U.S. is not unique in this respect: Loneliness is reaching epidemic levels throughout the developed world. Forty-one percent of Britons say the TV or a pet is their main source of company, and the U.K. has created a cabinet-level minister to deal with the problem of rampant loneliness. A government study in Japan found that more than half a million people spent at least six months at home with no outside contact. “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes,” said former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. “It was loneliness.”
What impact does loneliness have?
It makes people sick. A 2010 study by Brigham Young University found that loneliness shortens a person’s life by 15 years, about the same impact as being obese or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Other studies have found connections between loneliness and a wide range of health problems, including increased risk for heart attacks, stroke, and cancer. Lonely people are more likely to suffer from insomnia, depression, and drug abuse. They are also more likely to suffer from more rapid cognitive decline in old age.
Why is physical health affected?
Stress. The feeling of loneliness, scientists say, is an evolutionary phenomenon. Just as hunger encourages animals to find food, loneliness forces humans to seek out the protection of the group, increasing the chances of survival. To produce this behavior, loneliness triggers the release of stress hormones, particularly cortisol. In small doses, these hormones help make solitary humans more alert to danger. But they damage health if the body is exposed to them over long periods of time. Stress leads to high blood pressure, increased inflammation, and a weakened immune system. Without an emotional support network, lonely people are also more likely to slip into unhealthy habits, such as substance abuse, overeating, and not exercising. For seniors, isolation can be especially deadly in the event of an emergency like a bad fall or a heart attack. “Denying you feel lonely makes no more sense than denying you feel hunger,” said John T. Cacioppo, a neuroscientist who studied loneliness at the University of Chicago.
Is isolation more common?
It appears to be. Between 1985 and 2009, the average American’s …read more
Source:: The Week – Science