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Loneliness Kills, and Science Can Prove it

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In a world filled with smartphones and social media apps, people are still afflicted by loneliness. Feeling lonely from time to time is a normal emotional reaction when missing loved ones, recalling certain memories, and longing for romance. But intense, deep loneliness can be dangerous for both physical and mental health.

According to the Harvard Medical School, loneliness affects 25 to 60 percent of older Americans, putting at least 50 million Americans at risk of poor health. In a survey of members of the American Association of Retired Persons Medicare Supplement Plans, about 27 to 29 percent of the respondents reported feeling lonely and 9 percent reported feeling severely lonely.

In the United Kingdom, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness reported an estimated 15 to 20 percent or more than 9 million of adult Britons said they were often or always lonely, in 2017. The British government appointed a minister dedicated to resolving the loneliness crisis.

"For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with,” said UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

When a person is lonely, stress creeps in to afflict the mind and body. People are interconnected among one another and the brain is wired to fulfill that connection. Loneliness is interpreted by the brain as a chronic stressor that triggers the fight, flight or freeze response. The high amount of stress increases the stress hormone cortisol that damages health.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands when stressed. The secretion of cortisol is managed by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland as well. Almost every cell in the body has a receptor to cortisol. Cortisol controls blood sugar levels, regulates metabolic processes, reduces inflammatory effects, assists memory, and helps with salt and water balance to manage blood pressure. It is also involved in fetal development in pregnant women.

While cortisol helps the body in many ways, a high concentration of the hormone in the system can lead to the following adverse health effects:

- Impairment of cell regeneration and tissue healing.

- Disruption of normal digestion and metabolism.

- Disruption to normal mental function.

- Imbalance in other hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone.

- Bone and muscle loss that can result in other health conditions, such as osteoporosis.

- Problems with hair and skin health. Eczema is a skin condition that can be triggered by stress.

- Dysregulation of the thyroid glands' normal function.

- Lack of sleep or trouble in maintaining sleep.

The side effects of high cortisol levels are just a part of one possible outcome of loneliness. Other adverse effects of loneliness can affect the heart’s health, the strength of the immune system, and frequency of inflammation.

1. In a study published in the journal, Heart in 2016, loneliness increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, similar to smoking. The researchers examined 23 studies that accounted for 181,000 adults. They found 4,620 heart-related events including heart attacks and about 3,000 cases of stroke. Upon analysis, the findings revealed that loneliness, social isolation or both increased the risk of heart attack by 29 percent, while it was 32 percent for stroke.

2. Loneliness has been found to alter the functionality of the immune system. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers tracked 141 people for five years. For each year, they measured the level of the loneliness of participants and took blood samples to analyze the genes involved in inflammation and immunity. Their findings revealed that lonely people have higher levels of norepinephrine, a hormone that raises blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Overexpression of the hormone can shut down the numerous functions of the immune system, which means loneliness can kill people -- literally.

3. Inflammation is another biological process modified by loneliness. In the same published at PNAS, the researchers found that loneliness can terminate specific genes that make the body sensitive to cortisol’s ability to reduce inflammation. This means that chronic loneliness can increase the risk of developing chronic inflammation.

“At this point, my best guess was that loneliness really is one of the most threatening experiences we can have. Though I didn't think of loneliness as being that awful. It's not pleasant, but not something my body should be getting all up in arms about,” said Steve Cole, the lead author of the study and a genomics researcher at the University of California.

Loneliness can be assessed easily by anyone. Factors such as lack of people to hang out with, lack of close friends, having no part of a group or community or being unable to talk to anyone are indicators of being lonely. Reversing these factors can alleviate symptoms of loneliness by doing specific tasks, such as going out more and socializing with people. Building new friendships or joining in positive activities can improve the once very sad ambiance in one's life.

[메디컬리포트=​Ralph Chen 기자]

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