Poor-quality relationships often cause serious mental, and even physical health problems, many of which lead to premature death. Many people choose to live alone; however, it now appears that loneliness can also cause serious health complications of its own. The body responds to loneliness by compromising immune system function. A new study has found that people who are socially isolated have elevated latent herpes virus reactivation and more inflammation proteins in their body as a result of the stress of being alone.
Chronic inflammation in the body can cause a number of serious health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, arthritis, and cognitive impairment. Additionally, reactivation of the latent herpes virus is relative to stress indicating that loneliness acts like a stress trigger resulting in a stressed immune system. This is why herpes seems to reactive very often during old age.
Researchers examined two groups of people: a “healthy” group of middle-aged, overweight adults and a group that had survived breast cancer. Loneliness in each group was measured using a loneliness questionnaire. The assessment also included blood samples that measured immune system behavior.
Participants were put in a stressful circumstance where they had to speak and perform a mental math task in front of a video camera and three assessors. After this, researchers triggered an immune system response using a compound found in bacterial cell walls.
“One reason this type of research is important is to understand how loneliness and relationships broadly affect health. The more we understand about the process, the more potential there is to counter those negative effects – to perhaps intervene. If we don’t know the physiological processes, what are we going to do to change them,” said Lisa Jaremka, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University and lead author of the research.
Lonely participants in each group demonstrated higher levels of inflammation than those that were socially connected. Even in the breast cancer survivor group, participants who were lonelier had more inflammation than those who were not lonely. The results indicate that it is healthy to be socially engaged and being alone is not necessarily the best option when it comes to preventing disease.
“It is clear from previous research that poor-quality relationships are linked to a number of health problems, including premature mortality and all sorts of other very serious health conditions. And people who are lonely clearly feel like they are in poor-quality relationships.”
Seeing as previous research found that dementia risk is cut by nearly 70% in those who are highly social, it is no surprise to see that loneliness could have such a negative effect on the body.