Whether you’re missing the grandkids or retirement has been more solitary than you expected, it’s natural to be lonely sometimes. In fact, it’s part of being human. But when you’re chronically lonely—when you feel socially isolated or disconnected for long periods—it can seriously damage your health. Research shows that chronic loneliness leads to dementia, cognitive decline, immunity issues, and heart disease, among other problems. In fact, a 2015 study in Perspectives on Psychological Science revealed that chronic loneliness increases your chance of dying by a staggering 26 percent.
Perhaps because it carries a stigma—lonely people can be perceived as anti-social or worse, rejects—loneliness isn’t discussed as much as other health threats. "While we talk a lot about smoking, exercise and obesity as risk factors for morbidity, health care utilization, and mortality, our society doesn’t recognize the risk that loneliness can pose," says Dr. Kerstin Gerst Emerson, an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Georgia. Since it’s estimated that 60 million people are affected by loneliness, that needs to change. Fast.
What is loneliness, exactly?
"Loneliness is a subjective experience, where people feel isolated, left out or lack companionship," says Dr. Emerson. "It's the discrepancy between the social relationships that we actually have and what we would ideally want." It’s important to note that loneliness is different from solitude, though they ultimately have the same perilous physical effects. "Someone who is alone isn’t necessarily lonely," she says. “Some people simply prefer seclusion."
Loneliness is partly genetic, meaning that A) many of our neurological responses to perceived isolation are inherited, and B) it’s naturally worse for some people. Dr. John Cacioppo, a Behavioral Neuroscience expert at the University of Chicago, estimates that about half of loneliness, mostly the "intensity of pain" you feel, is heritable.
Finally, loneliness doesn’t discriminate; it affects all people across a variety of demographics. It’s increasingly recognized as a significant health hazard for middle-aged and younger folks, though it’s long been known to have damaging effects on people over 65. "The risk of loneliness can increase with age because of an increase in impairments and increased social isolation," says Dr. Emerson.
New retirees are particularly vulnerable to loneliness, as well, says Dr. Sarah Yarry, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist specializing in gerontology. "Someone who has worked all their lives and has socialized with co-workers retires—they have to figure out a new way of social contact," she says. If they’re among the 13 percent of the U.S. population that lives alone, that new isolation can be especially trying.
How does loneliness affect your health?
Neurologically speaking, research shows that chronic loneliness keeps the brain in self-preservation mode, activating sophisticated chemical responses that affect you physically. This bodily stress then leads to health issues like heart disease, fatigue, and memory loss. For example, one 2012 study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry found that consistently lonely people are 64 percent more likely to develop dementia, making loneliness a primary risk factor for senility. In regards to well-being overall, experts claim loneliness is more dangerous than pollution, and on par with obesity, smoking, and alcoholism.
This is often exacerbated by personal behaviors, too. "People who have fewer support systems tend to engage in risky healthy behaviors,” says Dr. Yarry. “People who are lonely tend to smoke more, not eat healthy, not exercise," sometimes because they’ve lost a sense of purpose or meaning.
In terms of mental health, loneliness frequently co-exists with depression, though it doesn’t always. One can lead to the other, and vice versa. "Even if someone hasn’t battled it before, as they get older and feel more isolated and have significant health issues, they may feel depressed," says Dr. Yarry. Anxiety, hostility, and nervousness can play in, as well, making it even more difficult to finally seek help.
How you can tackle loneliness
Think of loneliness as a warning sign that social contact is crucial to your physical health. To feel less isolated, then, you have to first acknowledge it’s happening. "The second step is to reach out," says Dr. Emerson. "That can be done by contacting your family or friends. The internet can be very helpful in maintaining contact, but also phone and in-person interactions are important."
Once you’ve dipped your toe in, try slowly expanding your circles: "You can join new clubs or groups in the area, find offerings by your local senior center, attend lectures or volunteer," says Dr. Emerson. Dr. Yarry adds, "Taking a class—including an educational component—has been found to be really effective. Doing something novel, trying new things can be a good way to connect with others." And while it won’t be easy at first, socialization is vital to your health. Recognize it’s a process, and give yourself some leeway.
If you know someone else who is lonely, the best remedy is, simply, your presence. "Reaching out to at-risk people is an excellent first step," says Dr. Emerson, and a casual visit or phone call can get the ball rolling. If you’re long distance and can’t be there in person, many municipalities have programs that send volunteers to spend time with the lonely person; call the local Health and Human Services department for information. Finally, there are two highly regarded federal programs designed to combat isolation:
Though loneliness is a growing problem with manifold negative consequences, it’s ultimately one that can be remedied. But it’s up to you to take the first step.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.