Have you ever heard the phrase loneliness can kill? Turns out it’s not just one of those terrible cliches made up by social networks, it is a scientific fact. While there have been plenty of studies on the subject, it’s only one recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that proves loneliness could literally be deadly.
The Physical Impacts of Loneliness
As mentioned, there have been several studies and papers in the past that have shown how detrimental social isolation can be on a person’s health. However, there has never been an official study into the physical impact of loneliness; until now. Researchers from the University of North Carolina have recently put together a report collating a person’s social life with their physical health – and the results have been quite staggering. The researchers collected information on the social lives of 14,000 participants based on two key areas; the size of their social network and the quality of their social interactions. This data was then cross-referenced with physical health information; including blood pressure, BMI, and waist circumference.
One of the key areas that researchers wanted to focus on was whether the physical impacts of loneliness changed throughout the participants four key stages of life. Interestingly, they found that adolescents craved a larger social network as opposed to several close friendships. Those who felt as though they struggled with loneliness saw an increased risk of inflammation along the same lengths as being physically inactive. While our bodies use inflammation as part of a natural healing process, excessive periods in this state can cause damage to cells which then leads to chronic health conditions. In simpler terms, those who felt lonely during their adolescence stages may have seen excess damage to their cells and are more at risk of chronic health conditions. And lonely, for these teens, was simply not having a large enough social network.
Middle Age Loneliness
On the flip side of the coin, those in middle adulthood were found to be more impacted by the quality of their friendships as opposed to the size of their social network. Those who felt as though they had unfulfilling connections with friends and work colleagues were far more likely to suffer from conditions such as obesity. One reason for this may be due to those who are middle-aged tend to be surrounded by friends, family and work colleagues, therefore, the size of their social network is not an issue. Instead everyday stresses that relate to the people closest to them could be bringing on feelings of isolation – therefore, leading to physical health conditions such as obesity. It was also found that those in late adulthood who felt lonely were at greater risk of hypertension; more so than a health condition such as diabetes.
The study concludes that as we go through the four key stages of life we’re on the lookout for different ways to combat loneliness – from larger social networks when we’re younger, to a better quality of relationship as we get older. And, those who do feel isolated can see physical health problems that could impact them in later life. The moral of this story? Ensuring you work on building strong and healthy relationships is just as important as enjoying a healthy lifestyle, eating well, and exercising.