Lonely people get sick more easily and die younger, a recent study published on November 23 in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences has shown.
Research was led by John Caciopp, psychologist at the University of Chicago, in conjunction with other experts from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, Davis.
Experts determined the effects of loneliness on human participants, as well as on rhesus macaques, a primate species displaying intricate social hierarchies and complex interactions.
The human individuals involved in the analysis had taken part in the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study, surveying adults aged between 50 and 68.
In a prior investigation, researchers had discovered solitude is usually marked by “conserve transcriptional response to adversity” (CTRA).
This means that upon experiencing such negative emotions, the genes which cause inflammation increase their activity, whereas those triggering antiviral reactions become more sluggish.
As a result, lonely individuals have more inflammation throughout their bodies, and their immune system is also greatly weakened.
In this new research, experts took their analysis one step further, by measuring CTRA responses and also investigating the production of leukocytes.
These white blood cells play an essential role for the immune system, defending the body against infectious disease, allergens and other harmful invaders.
It was determined that during moments of loneliness, the production of leukocytes is perturbed. Just like in the prior study, experts noticed increased CTRA activity among those who experienced such emotional distress.
Going through negative emotions of this kind had resulted in heightened inflammation throughout the body, and also diminished antiviral responses, thus increasing the risk of premature death.
More precisely, it was established that, among elderly adults, being isolated from others led to a 14% higher likelihood of dying early.
Moreover, those who were unhappy over being in solitary isolation also had higher concentrations of immature monocytes in their blood.
These are one of the main categories of leukocytes, and have a role in recognizing and destroying pathogens. Having such cells in excessive amounts has been linked with elevated activity of the inflammatory gene, and reduced functionality of the antiviral gene.
Experts believe that these detrimental transformations are caused by several psychological reactions which appear in the body when the individual feels lonely.
Given that separation is perceived as a potential threat to the individual’s well-being, the autonomic nervous system sends out an alert, and stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are produced by the suprarenal glands.
This “fight or flight”mechanism is normally employed in dangerous situations, when the person’s survival is under attack, but it can also appear during distressing times, even in the absence of an actual external stimulus.
As these danger signals are launched, a neurotransmitter known as norepinephrine stimulates the production of monocytes in the bone marrow, and that is how overall leukocyte count is also elevated, causing excessive inflammation, coupled with reduced response to actual pathogens.
Prior studies had also suggested that solitude can be detrimental to health, but now a scientific explanation has been found, by investigating the actual mechanisms that are triggered in the body when being separated from others.
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