It seems straightforward that loneliness is an emotional issue, but it can have consequences for your physical health. An article in Advisory Board said, “Loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and increases the risk of death by 26-45%, which is on par with risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, and lack of exercise.” That same article reported 46% of Americans say they sometimes or always feel alone.
According to an article in the New York Times, research has found “… loneliness can impair health by raising levels of stress hormones and inflammation, which in turn can increase the risk of heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia and even suicide attempts. Among older people who reported they felt left out, isolated or lacked companionship, the ability to perform daily activities like bathing, grooming and preparing meals declined and deaths increased over a six-year study period relative to people who reported none of these feelings.”
Across the lifespan
While senior populations are often thought of first when it comes to dealing with loneliness as a public health issue, it can be a problem for people of any age. In fact, according to Advisory Board, which cited a study from Cigna, “young adults experience rates of loneliness and social isolation far higher than any other age group.”
“People need meaningful sources of connection to feel fulfilled and even to keep their cognitive function sharp,” said Dr. Patricia Ellis, a Marshfield Clinic Health System psychologist. “We all need to connect, but we also need the mental challenge of interacting with other people.”
Relationships are not a cure-all
Ellis said she often finds that loneliness is a component of a patient’s depression. She said patients who are lonely may think they just need to be in a romantic relationship, but there are other ways to address loneliness and feel connected.
“The reality is that support systems are whatever you need them to be. It could be friends, it could be acquaintances,” Ellis said. “As long as you’ve got some of that connection on an ongoing basis that fuels thinking and rejuvenation, you won’t experience loneliness as much. That input from other people helps center you and keep you fresh. Without it, you can end up spending too much time in your head.”
Ellis warned that even if you are married and have kids it’s possible to feel a strong sense of loneliness.
“It’s not just about being surrounded by people, even people who love you,” Ellis said. “When there’s a disconnect between people’s needs and their reality, that can create loneliness even if they’re in a family system. You can be lonely in a relationship if you don’t have a connection with that person that is meeting your emotional needs.”
While we all feel loneliness at times, Ellis said if it gets to the point that it’s disrupting your life, your relationships and how you function, then it may be time to seek help.