Loneliness is on the rise around the world – especially in the UK where half of all 75 year olds live alone and one in 10 are thought to suffer intense loneliness. When partners die and families move away, many older people lose their connection with the outside world.
There is a growing platform of evidence to suggest that loneliness could be contributing to rising health problems. Psychologists at Ohio State University and the University of Chicago recently found that loneliness has a significant impact on the immune system.
The researchers took samples of cortisol, the stress hormone, from a selection of healthy participants every morning and evening. Those who described themselves as lonely also appeared to produce more cortisol, which, as well as raising stress levels, also causes inflammation.
While inflammation is necessary for the body’s healing process after a cut or an infection, prolonged inflammation (chronic inflammation) is thought to cause heart disease and cancer.
In 2006 researchers found that breast cancer patients who didn’t have friends and family around them were five times more likely to die of the disease than those who had a supportive social circle.
For most people, feeling loved and supported is an integral part of good health and recovery. With a growing body of evidence to suggest that loneliness really does contribute to illness, physicians can now start to take the social lives of their patients into account during diagnosis and treatment.
Health professionals and councils now need to work together to crack down on loneliness in our communities. By creating support networks and encouraging people to look beyond their own front doors to their neighbours and distant relatives, we can perhaps create an environment where every individual feels loved.
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