• While it’s natural to feel lonely at times, health risks can occur when temporary state of loneliness turns into a chronic trait. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Apart from emotional strain, the negative effects of loneliness can also manifest in physical health issues.
By
Jody Phan

29 Apr 2016 - 11:52 AM  UPDATED 29 Apr 2016 - 1:38 PM

Finding solitude in some occasional “me time” is a great way to discover yourself, unwind and recharge. But spending too much time alone can have harmful effects on a person's health, research has shown.

In a most recent study, loneliness has been linked to increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

Researchers at the University of York found that people who felt socially isolated have a 29 per cent higher risk of having heart disease and a 32 per cent higher risk of having a stroke than their peers who felt like they were well-connected.

Meanwhile, plenty more research has shown the effects of loneliness can be as damaging as causing high blood pressure, inflammation, problems with learning and memory, and even early death.

“Many of the patients we see have had situational loneliness that becomes chronic. They have been unable to rebuild after a loss or a move or retirement."

A study conducted by the Universities of California and Chicago surveyed 141 elderly people about their levels of social isolation. Researchers examined gene expression in leukocytes — cells of the immune system that are involved in protecting the body against bacteria and viruses — and analysed how these genes corresponded to participants’ self-reported isolation. They found that in 26 per cent of participants who identified themselves as being socially isolated, the genes that cause inflammation were more active, while genes that fight viral infections were depressed.

As well as posing problems for the immune system, loneliness has been shown to shorten a person’s life span. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, analysed data from 70 studies and over 3 million participants to find a 26 per cent increased chance of death in people who reported loneliness, and 32 per cent for people living alone.

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In fact, the health risks associated with loneliness are so high that the researchers consider it to be comparable to “well-established risk factors” such as obesity and substance abuse. “In light of mounting evidence that social isolation and loneliness are increasing in society, it seems prudent to add social isolation and loneliness to lists of public health concerns,” the authors wrote.

While it’s natural to feel lonely at times, health risks can occur when a temporary state of loneliness turns into a chronic trait. “Many of the patients we see have had situational loneliness that becomes chronic. They have been unable to rebuild after a loss or a move or retirement,” says psychiatrist Richard S. Schwartz, co-author of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century.

Previous studies have shown health benefits of leading an active social life and having friends.

Conversely, previous studies have shown health benefits of leading an active social life and having friends. This particular study suggests having friends in old age can lead to a better quality of life and later onset of health deterioration.

“Social engagement is considered a key driver of life satisfaction in older adults,” study authors wrote. “Social activities promote feelings of competence, physical health, and cognitive functioning, which in turn contribute to high well-being.”

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