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Loneliness: A Public Health Concern?

Loneliness is an emotion that can be difficult to pin down because it often means different things to different people. It can be a perception of isolation because we feel that we aren’t being heard and valued. It can be caused by feeling that there is no one we can turn to for emotional support. Also, in many instances, a lonely person is actually physically alone through the loss of a spouse or loved one. Regardless of how we define loneliness, however, researchers have concluded that feeling so alone can affect not just our mental and emotional well being, but our physical health, as well. And, they are finding that loneliness can be as contagious as a virus.

Feeling Lonely is Becoming a Public Health Concern

It may be hard to believe, but loneliness is also becoming a public health issue in the United States. When people were asked how many close confidants they had during a poll taken back in 1984, the average answer was three. When a follow-up poll was taken again in 2004, however, the average response from people was that they had no close confidants: zero!

Not only is loneliness on the upswing, but studies are now suggesting that loneliness can be contagious and can spread through groups of people via negative social interactions. One such study asked more than 5,000 people to complete a loneliness questionnaire. Participants were also asked to supply researchers with a medical history and go through a physical examination every two years to four years over the ten year study period. The participants also listed relatives and friends and referred them to the study: many of these referrals also took part in the study. By looking at the social networks of the participants and the number of lonely days they experienced each year, scientists were able to see how loneliness spread throughout the groups.

Additionally, researchers are finding that social isolation actually changes human DNA. In 2015, a study done by UCLA School of Medicine psychologist Steve Cole and his colleagues revealed that complex immune system responses are at work in lonely people. Their investigation found that feelings of loneliness or actually being socially isolated created more activity in the genes responsible for inflammation and reduced the activity of genes that produce antibodies to fight infection. They found that monocytes, a type of white blood cell that forms the first line of the body’s infection response system, are dramatically changed in people who are socially isolated.

Even if you overlook this change in infection-fighting cells, we know that “lonely adults consume more alcohol and get less exercise than those who are not lonely,” says John Cacioppo, co-author of the book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection in an interview with U.S. News and World Report. “Their diet is higher in fat, their sleep is less efficient, and they report more day time fatigue. Loneliness also disrupts the regulation of cellular processes deep within the body, predisposing us to premature aging.” Their study showed that the cellular damage that can be caused by these genetic changes appears to be similar to that which comes from smoking, diabetes, and obesity.

Coping With Loneliness

So, how do you cope with being lonely? First, understand that loneliness is a normal part of being human, but it can make you feel like you are abnormal. Second, move forward by trying these suggestions:

  • Get a pet – they provide companionship and unconditional love and can be a way to meet other people through activities that get you up and out of the house. Dog-walking in the park is a good example of this type of activity.
  • Volunteer – helping others is often done as group. Volunteering can give you a new sense of purpose, can make you feel more positive about yourself, and will allow you to meet others who are working toward the same goal.
  • Take a class – classes also allow you to join a group of people with at least one common interest of yours. Additionally, classes give you something to look forward to and can provide you with the sense of ‘belonging’ that comes from being in a group.
  • Try to strengthen your existing connections and relationships with family and friends by calling them more or going out with them more often. Take the initiative to ask the person out, be yourself, and be a good listener.
  • Consider joining an online community because it can be easier to connect with people online than connecting with them in person if your loneliness comes from being shy or socially anxious. Do keep in mind, however, that online interaction is not a substitute for connecting face-to-face.
  • If you have tried some of the ideas above and are still having difficulty with feelings of loneliness, it might be time to try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT can give you the power to cope with your situation and can help you take action to deal with feeling lonely. Past studies have shown that changing how a person perceives and thinks about themselves and their social interactions with others was the most effective intervention for loneliness.

Learn More

It may be hard to figure out why you feel lonely and how to move past those feelings. A licensed mental health professional at The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida can help you to understand and work through your loneliness. For more information, call them at 561-496-1094 or email The Center today.


Dr. Andrew Rosen PHD, ABPP, FAACP is a Board-Certified Psychologist and the Founder and Director of The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders, as well as, the Founder of The Children’s Center for Psychiatry Psychology and Related Services.


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