Feb 23, 2013

Loneliness and Health

Loneliness may be hazardous to your health in a very concrete way. Blood samples collected from a group of medical students at the Ohio State University College of Medicine revealed important differences between those who scored high on a loneliness assessment test and those who did not. Lonely students were more likely to have reduced levels of natural killer (NK) cell activity, an indicator of immune response. "These cells have been shown to be of vital importance in preventing tumor development and spread," the Ohio researchers point out.

But if living alone doesn't depress you, there's no reason this news should, either. As social psychology researchers Carin Rubenstein, Ph.D., a former associate editor of Psychology Today, and Phillip Shaver, Ph.D., of the University of Denver, have observed: Being alone is not synonymous with loneliness. If people feel lonely, it has nothing to do with the number of people around them, but rather with their expectations of life and reactions to their environment. And those are risk factors you can do something about.

Drs. Rubenstein and Shaver conducted their research by placing a questionnaire about loneliness in five U.S. newspapers, ranging from the New York Daily News to the Billings, Montana, Gazette. Twenty-two thousand people over the age of 18 responded.

Interestingly, these respondents, who appeared to be typical of American adults, did not fit the mold of loneliness. Over the years, health statistics have pointed out that single people are more likely to suffer premature death. That led psychologists, including James J. Lynch, Ph.D., author of The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness, to theorize that people who live alone are socially isolated and because of that are not as happy or healthy as married folks.

That's not necessarily so, say Drs. Rubenstein and Shaver. While their survey does confirm that feeling lonely -- regardless of living arrangement -- is associated with greater health risks (people who said they were lonely were more likely to suffer from some 19 health problems listed, including such psychological symptoms as anxiety, depression, crying spells, and feeling worthless), results do not support the view that loneliness is a consequence of living alone.

Nearly one-quarter of the people who lived alone fell into Drs. Rubenstein and Shaver's "least lonely" category. Single people had more friends on the average than people who lived with other people and they were less frequently troubled by headaches, anger, and irritability.

By comparison, people who lived with their parents were the loneliest lot of all.

"Young people who live with their parents after high school or college graduation tend to be lonelier than older people who live alone," Dr. Rubenstein explains. "A young person in this situation has different expectations. If there's no boyfriend or girlfriend in the picture, they face a social psychological conflict. For young adults, in particular, being alone -- especially on a Saturday night -- can be a stigma. This makes them feel rejected and lonely." (‘The Complete Guide to Your Emotions and Your Health’, by Emrika Padus and staff of Prevention magazine)