Human beings are social creatures, meant to live in relationships, to one degree or another. Unfortunately, many of us experience loneliness—a sense of discomfort or distress when we want social connection, yet feel alone.
Loneliness is not just about the size of a person’s social network. You can know a lot of people—you can even be in a crowd—and still feel lonely. A person can have just a few, close friends and not feel lonely. The key is the strength and quality of relationships, not quantity.
Loneliness harms the mind and body
Loneliness happens to everyone at one time or another, whether in our personal relationships or at work. As a long-term state, however, it can have negative effects on both mental and physical health.
How bad can loneliness be for us? Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University and a leading loneliness researcher, notes that lack of social connection may contribute to premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
That’s partly because loneliness can contribute to:
- Increased stress and anxiety
- Less mental resilience
- Lower self-esteem
- Reduced cognitive activity
- Poorer life decisions
- Higher risk of suicide
But can loneliness itself lead to the development of physical disease? Research suggests it can.
The physical effects of loneliness
Dr. Vladimir Maletic of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine and Dr. Bernadette DeMuri-Maletic of the TMS center of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, recently discussed the impact of loneliness on general health. They covered a variety of scientific findings that connected loneliness with different health conditions and diseases.
Loneliness can have a huge impact on cardiovascular health. In one study, committed married couples who reported more negative interactions with each other tended to have thicker artery walls, which may increase risk of stroke. The converse was true, too; more positive relationships correlated with thinner diameters of the carotid artery. Other studies have found that women with more social support are at lower risk for cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease.
Part of loneliness is a lack of physical contact with another person. In one study, women who experienced more physical intimacy the week before the study had longer telomeres. Telomeres are located at the ends of chromosomes; shorter telomeres have been found to correlate with oxidative stress, aging, and overall poor health.
Physical and sexual intimacy can be especially important for health and longevity in older adults. One study found that intimacy was associated with higher cognitive assessment scores in adults aged 57 to 83. In a similar study, individuals who lived alone in middle age and older had three times the risk of Alzheimer disease—even when factoring for APOE4, a major risk gene for Alzheimer’s.
Loneliness is an important factor in holistic health
Research continues to demonstrate that chronic loneliness can impact on our health. Behavioral health providers should encourage healthy relationships among their clients as part of the treatment plan. It can be awkward to discuss relationships and intimacy, but the conversations could yield more positive client outcomes.
Assessing clients for loneliness, as well as other health risks, can help guide your treatment decisions. BestNotes’ OutcomeTools feature lets you deliver and analyze standardized or custom questionnaires to clients. This tool, free with an existing BestNotes subscription, helps you generate baseline and outcome data that can help you increase your practice’s value. Contact us today to find out more and schedule your free demo!