Genomics Researcher Steve Cole had never really thought much about loneliness and the pain it causes until he looked into a molecular microscope at a small sample of white blood cells. What he saw there changed his life.
The sample was one of several that had been taken from a handful of very lonely men and women, and Cole's observations were startling: In each of the samples, the blood cells appeared to be in a state of high alert, responding the way they would to a bacterial infection. It was as though the subjects were under mortal assault by a disease — the disease of loneliness.
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But even more surprising to Cole, a professor of medicine, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine, was the public reaction to the subsequent study he coauthored, when it was published in 2007.
"The impact at the societal level — it really kind of shocked me,” he says. As an academic, he was “used to publishing findings that interest scientists but not the general public.” Now he was receiving a steady stream of emails from ordinary people telling him how grateful they were for the work he was doing, and sharing stories of loved ones whose lives had been devoured by loneliness. “So that led me to respect loneliness as a topic and a foe,” Cole adds. “And that really did set me on a kind of different journey than I had been on at the time.”
Many of the women and men studying loneliness express a similar sense of mission about their research. Loneliness, says Louise Hawkley, a senior research scientist at the University of Chicago, “is a universal human experience, and being the social animals that we are, there must be implications when those social connections are not satisfied.” There is a human need to be embedded, connected, integrated in a social network, she notes. When that social network is missing, “the consequences are very real in terms of mental and physical health."
The true cost of loneliness
According to a study by researchers at the AARP Public Policy Institute and at Stanford and Harvard universities, the impacts of people living in social isolation add almost $7 billion a year to the cost of Medicare, mostly because of longer hospital stays — a result, researchers hypothesize, of not having community support at home.
“Studies continue to show that the negative health effects of loneliness and isolation are especially harmful for older adults,” says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation. “Moreover, our own research has found that people with lower income are often at greater risk of isolation..”
Fighting social isolation
Connect2Affect is AARP Foundation’s long-term effort to end isolation and build the social connections older adults need to thrive. Connect2Affect.org features tools and resources to help individuals evaluate their isolation risk, reach out to others who may be feeling lonely and disengaged, and find practical ways to reconnect to the community.
The research into those impacts has produced a wave of headlines. Every day it seems scientists discover more ways in which loneliness can attack our bodies and shorten our lives. Loneliness is a killer — an array of studies have found that it leaves us more likely to die from heart disease and is a contributing factor in other fatal conditions. It makes us more vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease, high blood pressure, suicide, even the common cold. It's more dangerous to our health, researchers tell us, than obesity, and it's the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The Research is alarming, but for most of us, it is also confusing. How do scientists take a ubiquitous, enduring and universal feeling and turn it into a set of scary statistics? How can an abstract emotion shorten a life? How do we even define a word that provokes so many meanings in so many different circumstances?
Most of us are intimately familiar with only one kind of loneliness: our own. For the men and women studying it, however, loneliness is a multiheaded mystery, a shape-shifter whose appearance changes in every mirror held up to it. Some experts find its face in statistics; others, in brain scans. Still others see it in the behavioral patterns of the people who suffer from it.
Together, those in the field deploy a complex battery of methods. Researchers have infected volunteers with cold viruses, have measured the physical distance that married lonely people maintain from their loved ones, have deprived college students of their sleep and have hurt the feelings of subjects playing games against a computer. Scientists have studied body language and eye movements, have built sophisticated statistical structures and have tracked their subjects over years to determine which ones die younger, get sicker, contract dementia and suffer depression. And yet the attempt to take the measure of such an essentially amorphous concept can be something like drawing a map to a country that can be seen only in the dark.
What does it mean to be lonely?
Many of the alarming statistics about loneliness come from studies that don't look solely at the way it feels but also examine clues to its presence provided by other, more quantifiable, factors — physical isolation, marital status, the number of close friends and family members, and the amount of television being watched.
"We need to define what exactly the issue is,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. “Is it loneliness specifically, or is it people becoming more socially disconnected in a variety of ways?” Until recently, she adds, data on loneliness in and of itself was scarce. “But there are other kinds of indicators that are routinely collected that would suggest we are becoming less socially connected. We have evidence from census data that there has been an increase in the number of people who are living alone, and there are declining marriage rates and increasing rates of childlessness. We know that lacking social connection puts us at greater health risk.”
Holt-Lunstad acknowledges that people who live alone aren't necessarily lonely and that there are many who may be nested within a close-knit family and still feel disconnected. Yet a subjective feeling of loneliness, she says, is not the only way to measure a person's vulnerability to health risks. Objective factors, such as living arrangements, may be equally important. Simply living alone or in an isolated place may be just as harmful to your health as feeling lonely.
Holt-Lunstad is the coauthor of an often-cited landmark study that looked at three groups of people who might be seen as lacking sufficient social connection: those who were socially isolated from other people, those who described themselves as very lonely and those who lived alone. The study pooled the evidence collected from 70 studies that followed a total of 3.4 million participants for an average of seven years and came up with a startling conclusion. Each of these groups faced roughly the same increased risk of an early death—32 percent for those living alone, 29 percent for those who were socially isolated from others and 26 percent for those who described themselves as very lonely.