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February 26, 2019 • read
The effects of loneliness on health
The research is definitive: loneliness is so bad for our health that being lonely is worse than smoking or being obese. And given that Statistics Canada reports that 1.4 million seniors are lonely “often,” or “some of the time,” our healthcare system is seeing the results. But seniors aren’t the only ones who feel that their social networks aren’t robust enough.
More attention is now focusing on the loneliness experienced by other groups, such as university students and new parents. A new study even suggests that there are three distinct moments in life when loneliness peaks. So given that we’re all going to feel lonely at some point, here’s what we need to know about how loneliness can impact us.
What does it mean to be lonely?
Loneliness doesn’t always have to do with being alone. Those of us who are lucky enough to have deep and rich connections with others might relish the time we spend by ourselves. Conversely, we can still feel lonely while living a life full of people: friends, family and even a spouse. Loneliness isn’t about the number of people we have in our lives, it’s about how we perceive the quality of our relationships.
When we’re lonely, it’s because we feel our connections with others aren’t measuring up, or aren’t meeting our needs. Because this engenders feelings of disconnection, loneliness can contribute to and cause depression. And while social isolation and loneliness are different, they often coexist, especially when it comes to senior populations.
Psychological effects of loneliness and social isolation
Humans are social creatures, and depriving us of our fellows can have terrible consequences. Depression and even suicidal thoughts are real risks associated with it. The tragic deaths of some prison inmates in Canada demonstrate the intense mental distress caused by solitary confinement. Their stories highlight the negative effects that social isolation can have on mental health, and have led the Canadian government to impose a 15-day limit on solitary confinement stays.
A further danger of loneliness and social isolation is that they can become habitual. The more isolated a person is, the harder they will find it to break the cycle and re-forge social bonds. Ill health and general frailty can also contribute, making it more difficult to reach out. But while we might be aware of the psychological consequences, the negative effects of loneliness can manifest physically as well.
How loneliness affects health
The effects of social isolation and loneliness have consequences on both physical and mental health. Being lonely triggers a stress response in our bodies which over time can lead to:
- increased risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack
- increased risk of stroke
- decreased effectiveness of medical treatments
- decreased ability to learn and do physical tasks
- greater risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s
- increased risk of emergency hospitalization and re-hospitalization after discharge within the year among older adults
- increased risk of death
How to overcome loneliness
We will all feel lonely at some time in our lives. Stockpiling friends isn’t the easiest thing to do for everyone, nor is it always the answer to overcoming loneliness. So how to get over loneliness? Going to a crowded shopping mall isn’t likely to help, but having strong and close relationships is. Reach out to friends or family to remind yourself that you have connections with people who care about you. And never underestimate volunteering when it comes to figuring out what to do when you feel lonely. Helping others and forging ties with fellow volunteers can bestow a sense of purpose as well as connection. Joining a club or a regular meetup like a walking or running group can help ease feelings of loneliness. Some may also find meaningful friendships through online connections.
For those living in extreme isolation, or battling physical or mental health challenges, the situation can be more complex. If you’re lonely and don’t know what to do, a good first step is talking to your doctor or a therapist. They can recommend resources or refer you to a mental health practitioner. The first step to overcoming loneliness is making a connection.