Loneliness and Health – The Scientific Connection

The connection between loneliness and health is one that concerns researchers around the world. It’s considered a public health issue for the older population over the age of sixty and is rapidly becoming a plague in the younger generations as well. Loneliness directly impacts quality of life (for people of all ages) and increases overall health complaints such as chronic pain, depression, and systemic inflammation.1

The concept of loneliness can be rather abstract. What does it mean to be lonely? It’s a complex and extremely individual feeling that may or may not include isolation. It’s not the same as “solitude” – which many people seek for various reasons.

Loneliness doesn’t inspire positive feelings. One can be “alone” and not “lonely” – just as one can be in a room full of people and feel more alone than ever. Mother Teresa said, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”

The Growing Epidemic of Loneliness

Despite living on a relatively small planet with 7 billion other people, loneliness is all too common. Even though we’re more technologically “connected” than ever before, more people report being lonely than ever before and it should trouble all of us.2

The dangers posed by loneliness to health are only beginning to be understood.

In a study conducted by Cigna that examined the “social media paradox,” Douglas Nemecek, MD explained, “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”3

The state of long-term loneliness has the ability to alter you at the cellular level that leads to a higher risk of disease and early mortality. During a ten-year study, researchers with Clemson University and the University of Chicago wrote, “The fact that loneliness continues to predict health outcomes when health behaviors are held constant suggests that loneliness alters physiology at a more fundamental level.4

The effect of loneliness on health needs more coverage. Chair of preventative medicine at Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Richard Lang, stated that addressing loneliness is as critical as addressing your nutrition, exercise, and sleep.5

Current estimates by the AARP’s Loneliness Study suggest more than 42 million Americans over the age of 45 are affected by chronic loneliness.6

A major aspect of our humanity is socialization. It’s wired into us at the cellular level. We may be connected at an astronomical rate due to modern technology…but are we connecting?

University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience director John Cacioppo has been studying the effects of loneliness on health for two decades. He explains that loneliness (in moderation) can be beneficial to how we interact with others. Too much is dangerous because your body interprets it in the same way it does hunger, thirst, or pain.7

Your body enters “fight or flight” mode to save itself. The internal chemical effects of these reactions ramp up the stress and aging done to your body.

On mental and emotional level, Isolation and loneliness devastate the human mind and spirit. It’s difficult to approach loneliness “logically” when negative emotions are out of control.

Loneliness: The Link to Rising Suicide Rates

The epidemic of chronic loneliness may provide more insight into rising suicide rates. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that 45,000 people take their own lives annually in the United States alone – approximately 54% of those who died did not have a known mental health condition.8

Every 40 seconds, someone commits suicide in the United States, making it the 10th leading cause of death for everyone over the age of 10. That’s not including the nearly 500,000 suicide attempts that occur annually.

Long-Term Physical Effects of Chronic Loneliness on Health

  • Decreased brain function and overall cognition
  • Poor immune system function
  • Higher risk of heart disease
  • Increased inflammation
  • Raised risk of premature death by 45%
  • Raised risk of dementia by 64%

A 12-year collaborative study between Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that participants with the highest levels of loneliness showed a 20% faster rate of cognitive decline than participants who didn’t report feelings of loneliness.9

University of Rochester professor Harry Reis explained, “It’s perfectly common for people to experience loneliness when their social networks are changing.”10

It’s when loneliness becomes chronic that problems arise. Trouble moving on after a traumatic loss or life change can spur feelings of isolation and loneliness. The stigma of mental and emotional trouble prevents many from seeking help or even talking to someone about how they feel.

We need other people.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a “people person,” it’s crucial to interact at some level with others. Much like the stress response, loneliness is your body’s way of telling you to pay attention.

Ignoring these signals makes the problem worse.

7 Tips to Fight Loneliness in Daily Life

  1. Recognize how you feel and accept it without conditions. Forbid the negative trigger words you might be tempted to assign to your situation. Loneliness crosses every boundary. Feeling emotionally isolated doesn’t make you a loser or socially awkward.
  2. Recognize how you feel and accept it without conditions. Forbid the negative trigger words you might be tempted to assign to your situation. Loneliness crosses every boundary. Feeling emotionally isolated doesn’t make you a loser or socially awkward.
  3. Visit with family or friends. An in-person visit is best but not always possible. Some people live too far away for a quick visit or our schedules don’t mesh most of the time. With camera phones, video calling, texting, instant messages, and email – it’s a little easier to stay in touch with people on the other side of the world.
  4. Don’t forget to give yourself some love. It’s harder to truly connect with other people if you don’t give yourself the love and attention you deserve. A bit of yoga or simple stretching, a nice soak, sleeping in, or buying yourself something silly you’ve wanted for a long time are small acts of love and kindness (to yourself) that can go a long way.
  5. Embrace furry creatures if you can. Pets provide unconditional love and attention when you need it most. If you’re single or an empty-nester…pets are great about reminding you that you’re pretty amazing.
  6. Projects work wonders. It may seem silly but a bout of crafting (or another hobby you enjoy) might be just the thing if you’re feeling lonely.
  7. Go exploring. It would be nice to take a little jaunt across the European countryside but not possible most days. It’s kind of shocking how many businesses, restaurants, and museums you might not know exist within 20-miles of where you’re sitting right now. It provides something new (and different) that breaks up the day in interesting ways. Inspiring smiles on other people’s faces is a great way to encourage one on your own face.

The effect of loneliness on health is shockingly clear. Being lonely won’t kill you…but it creates ideal conditions for other health problems – heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia – that can if left unchecked or ignored.

Be good to yourself. Don’t ignore it. Move around, connect with others, distract your mind, and fight your way through it. If you get to a serious low point, call for help. You are not alone.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” – Kurt Vonnegut


1 NCBI: Loneliness as a Public Health Issue: The Impact of Loneliness on Health Care Utilization Among Older Adults 
2 Science Direct: Loneliness, health and social network among elderly people - a follow-up study 
3 Web MD: Loneliness Rivals Obesity, Smoking as Health Risk 
4 NCBI: Loneliness, Health, and Mortality in Old Age: A National Longitudinal Study 
5 Everyday Health: Why You Should Treat Loneliness as a Chronic Illness 
6 Science Daily: Social isolation, loneliness could be greater threat to public health than obesity 
7 Fortune: Chronic Loneliness Is a Modern-Day Epidemic 
8 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Suicide rising across the US 
9 Brigham Health Hub: Could Loneliness Be an Early Sign of Alzheimer’s Disease? 
10 Research Gate: Loneliness, Social Skills, and Social Perception

Leave a Comment:

All fields with “*” are required

Leave a Comment:

All fields with “*” are required