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Loneliness & the Risks to your Health

Lonely woman sitting on a bench by the sea Loneliness in the western world has become a major public health issue. In the USA, it is an invisible epidemic that is said to affect sixty million Americans. While everyone feels lonely at certain times in their lives, chronic loneliness poses a serious health risk with research showing that loneliness and social isolation are as much a threat to your health as obesity and smoking.

We're more connected than ever but are we feeling more alone?

Social pain and loneliness are as real a sensation for us as physical pain.
Dr Richard Lang (chair of preventive medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio) points out that people need to attend to loneliness in “the same way they would their diet, exercise or how much sleep they get.” Yes, loneliness (and the social isolation that can accompany it) can be as harmful to our health as if we were seriously overweight or if we were smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

Those health risks from being chronically lonely

  • Studies show that loneliness increases the risk of an early death by up to 45% while those with strong ties to family and friends are as much as 50% less at risk of dying over any given period of time than those with fewer social connections.
  • Loneliness is very much associated with an accelerated cognitive decline in older adults. Researchers (at Brigham & Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School) reported that the loneliest people in their study experienced cognitive decline at a rate approximately 20% faster over a 12 year period than those who were not lonely Another study concluded that lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia.
  • Loneliness is one of the reasons feeding depression, triggering it in the first place and then preventing recovery.
  • Being lonely can lower your immune system and lead to higher cortisol levels in the body. The body can go into shock when flooded with cortisol, leaving it much more vulnerable.
  • Loneliness can raise your inflammation levels. This is another problem directly related to stress and its effect on the immune system and again caused by those higher levels of cortisol and their immunosuppressant ways.
  • Long term loneliness has been linked to higher blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease.
  • Another concern is that loneliness and low social interaction are predictive of suicide in older age.
  • Getting too little or too much sleep can have a big impact on how you feel, particularly if loneliness is already a concern.
Academic research is clear that preventing and alleviating loneliness is vital to enable older people to remain as independent for as long as possible for all the obvious reasons. “It is not easy to stay with your loneliness. The temptation is to nurse your pain or to escape into fantasies about people who will take it away. But when you can acknowledge your loneliness in a safe, contained place, you make your pain available for healing.” Henri Nouwen.

A catch 22 situation

Having a mental health problem increases your chance of feeling lonely, and feeling lonely can have a negative impact on your mental health. It can have a big impact on your confidence and self-esteem, making it harder to open up and make new connections. "My mental health has made me lonely but feeling lonely has damaged my mental health!"

Social media can make loneliness worse

Loneliness is not only confined to the elderly. It can be equally devastating for the young and the middle-aged too. And social media has certainly not helped the situation where seeing other people promote their happiness, success, careers, friends and more on Facebook - and other social media sites - can make the lonely feel even more isolated. The internet itself has increased risks to the lonely including those from fraud. There are many examples of the lonely being targeted by con artists on dating sites and chat rooms.

Phone help lines for the lonely...

In the UK, where there are estimated to be at least one million who experience being lonely, you can call "The Silver Line" (especially for older people) at 0800 4 70 80 90. In the USA, reachout.com has a help line number too - 1800-448-3000 In Australia, their own reach out site offers valuable help online with an emergency phone number to click if needed. Now that you know the risks to your health and if you continue to be lonely, please do seek help. There are many who care and who want to help.    

Only the lonely Know the way I feel tonight Only the lonely Know this feeling ain't right There goes my baby There goes my heart They're gone forever So far apart But only the lonely Know why I cry Only the lonely Only the lonely

Only the lonely Know the heartaches I've been through Only the lonely Know I've cried and cried for you Maybe tomorrow A new romance No more sorrow But that's the chance You got to take If you lonely heart breaks Only the lonely Only the lonely Only the lonely

Made famous by singer Roy Orbison
Written by Kenneth Gamble, Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff • Copyright © BMG Rights Management US, LLC