Most people are fortunate in that they have one or more friends, a family and perhaps a partner with which to share their life. This isn’t the case for everyone and while we’ve known some of the social and health effects of isolation we haven’t really understood what happens to our biology, until now.
Combined research from the Universities of Chicago and California has demonstrated how perceived loneliness and isolation affects us at the genetic level. Tests on men and women over the age of 50 reveal that certain immune system genes become more active in people who perceive themselves as being lonely. The heightened activation suppresses the immune system. This leads to increased inflammation and an increased risk of illness and infection.
Experiments on macaque monkeys predicted how active the CTRA gene was according to isolation. And it’s a two-way effect. Not only does loneliness lead to more active CTRA genes, once active these same genes increase the likelihood of feeling lonely and isolated for several months afterwards.
Research psychologist Dr. John Capitanio, of the California National Primate Center says: ‘perceived social isolation is a risk factor for chronic illness and all-cause mortality.’
Results published in the June 23 American Sociological Review (2006) claimed that a quarter of Americans said they had no one in whom they could turn to or confide. In 2004 survey results suggested nearly 50% of adults said the only person they could turn to was their spouse. In turn this points to the very sad realization that if their spouse died, or the relationship broke down, isolation follows.
There is some level of disagreement over whether social isolation is worsening or whether the patterns are simply changing. Measures of social contact such as family dinners, meeting at clubs or various events, certainly point to a dramatic reduction in social contact. However social changes in terms of Internet use and different forms of contact such as Skype, may maintain ties that would have previously been in danger because of distance. It could also be the case that Internet use increases ties with new people.
Despite the arguments I doubt there are many of us who aren’t aware of people who live alone. Naturally we can’t confuse solitude with loneliness. Some people prefer to live alone and maintain their social contacts in more measured ways. Those in the older age group are the most vulnerable and it doesn’t take much to pass the time of day or offer a hot drink.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.