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Loneliness can harm your health

Two men in a coffee shop look at a phone and smile at each other.

May 19, 2023— Sometimes it's good to spend time by yourself. We can't always be social butterflies. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of U.S. adults reported being lonely. And that could harm their health, according to a recent advisory from the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General.

Social ties help us stay healthy. In fact, they may even boost the immune system. According to the new advisory, people with a variety of social connections were less likely to catch a cold when exposed to one. And isolation and loneliness have been linked to a weaker response to the COVID-19 vaccine.

The other half of that equation: loneliness and isolation (having few or infrequent social interactions) can harm your physical and mental health. They may raise the risk of health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and dementia. And they may contribute to early deaths.

Loneliness and heart health

The link between loneliness and heart health is real. According to the surgeon general:

  • Social isolation, poor social support and loneliness are linked with a 29% increase in heart disease risk.
  • Black Americans with strong social support are 36% less likely to develop high blood pressure.

Loneliness, isolation or both may take the greatest toll on those who've already been diagnosed with heart disease or had a stroke, says the American Heart Association. Among people with heart failure:

  • Those who said they were very lonely had a 68% higher risk of hospitalization than people with heart failure who weren't lonely.
  • People who were socially isolated had a 55% higher risk of hospital readmission.

Isolation is bad for brain health

Loneliness can affect our moods—and our brains. Here are a few key examples from the recent advisory.

  • Socially isolated and lonely people have a 32% increased risk of stroke.
  • Adults who are rarely or never lonely are half as likely to develop depression as those who are often lonely.
  • The risk of dementia is 50% higher among older adults who are chronically lonely or isolated.
  • Cognitive abilities declined 20% faster in lonely adults.

Possible reasons for these raised risks

More studies are needed to understand the ways loneliness and social isolation affect physical health. But for now, scientists do have a few ideas:

Behavioral. Being socially isolated or feeling lonely can be stressful. Perhaps as a result, some people may have habits or conditions linked to heart disease or stroke. For instance, they may drink too much alcohol, sleep poorly, feel more stressed and depressed, smoke, exercise less, or eat unhealthy foods.

Biological. Whether or not it's accurate, the feeling of being socially isolated can increase inflammation as much as physical inactivity. This may lead to harmful brain and blood vessel changes that contribute to heart disease, stroke or dementia.

Psychological. Relationships are a common source of meaning and purpose. And meaning and purpose help bolster resilience—the ability to cope with challenges. A sense of purpose, along with the support of family and friends, may help people stick to their healthy goals. For example, people with type 2 diabetes who have strong social connections and support say they are better able to manage the condition. And studies show they're less likely to develop complications from the disease.

Are you lonely or alone?

If you feel lonely or isolated, you can tell your doctor. Your emotional well-being is as important as your physical health, and the two can be related, as this report and other studies suggest.

You can also take steps to stay connected, which can help make life fulfilling and fun. If you want to try new activities and make new friends, here are eight ideas you can try.

Sources

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