Can Loneliness Shorten Your Life?

By Peter Russell
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD

Nov. 24, 2015 -- Being lonely can trigger cellular changes in your body that increase your chances of getting ill and not living as long as you could have, according to a new study.

The risk applies to older people, past research suggests.

A leading charity for people over 60 in the United Kingdom says the findings underline the importance of treating loneliness as a major health problem.

In the new study, researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of California found that loneliness can trigger the body's fight-or-flight response, which can affect the production of white blood cells and eventually undermine the immune system.

They based their research on 141 older people enrolled in a U.S. study on aging and social relations, and on an examination of lonely rhesus macaque monkeys, a highly social species of primates.

The researchers say that, in essence, lonely people have a weaker immune system and higher levels of inflammation than people who aren't lonely. Their health is also more vulnerable because they feel threatened.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Contrary to what many people think, loneliness is not a normal part of aging, and it not only makes life miserable, it can have a serious impact on your physical and mental health too," says Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK.

"Research shows that more than a million older people say they haven't spoken to a friend, neighbor or family member for over a month, and unless we act, our rapidly aging population means we'll see ever greater numbers of lonely older people.

"...There is something that everyone can do to help, even if it's checking in on older neighbors, relatives, and friends over the festive season and year round," she says.

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SOURCES: Cacioppo, J. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 2015. Press release, University of Chicago. Age UK.

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