Consider this scenario: you’re a 65-year-old who makes frequent visits to your physician for a variety of aches and pains. On one visit you complain about back pain. Next time it’s headaches. The time after that you’re feeling weak and fluey.
Your doctor examines you thoroughly. He runs all the tests. But he never finds anything to account for your symptoms.
After each visit, you leave your doctor’s office not only frustrated but also feeling like there’s nothing that can be done. You’re despondent.
The Question is Why?
This scenario is a daily phenomenon in most family physicians’ offices. Why? Well, quite possibly the answer to these ill-defined symptoms — no clear cause — could be the result of a patient’s loneliness and boredom.
Research shows that when people feel lonely, they generally have more health issues, feel lousy, and possibly die at a much earlier age.
The Loneliness Syndrome
Three years ago, your significant other passed away, let’s say. You’ve been living by yourself ever since. Maybe your children all live far away or are simply too wrapped up in their own lives to spend a lot of time with you.
Maybe you have no children. Or, if you do, they and their kids – your grandchildren – rarely visit you or vice versa. You maybe get an annual rendezvous.
You may even have a diminishing circle of friends, lost through the inevitable attrition caused by old age and death.
Is it any wonder you’re failing to thrive? Are you really surprised that you hurt all over?
If asked about loneliness, you would probably respond: “Yes, I am lonely”. And that – quite often, but not always – might well be the root cause of your pain.
The Psychological Research
It has long been known that all kinds feelings can affect our physical health—in very profound ways. And that physical pain can be precipitated by feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Multiple research studies on loneliness and isolation were conducted in 2015 at Brigham Young University.
Their results, based on findings from several hundred thousand people, showed that social isolation resulted in a 50 percent increase in premature death.
Both conditions (loneliness and isolation) were also found to be associated with increased blood pressure, higher cholesterol levels, and depression. Furthermore, decreases in cognitive abilities and Alzheimer’s disease were present, too.
Take it to Heart
A recent article published in Heart identifies the problem even more specifically: “Social isolation denotes few social connections or interactions, whereas loneliness involves the subjective perception of isolation — the discrepancy between one’s desired and actual level of social connection.”
Even the United Kingdom is taking this situation to heart. Just to show how important this issue is for their population, both aging and in general, the U.K. now has an official Minister for Loneliness.
And not without good reason – this position has been created to tackle what Prime Minister Theresa May calls a “sad reality of modern life” for many U.K. citizens.
In a follow-up article, we’ll talk about the cognitive psychology of loneliness and what the medical community and other socially responsible interest groups are doing to help.
This article is part one of a two-part series about how loneliness and isolation can affect your health. Stay tuned for part two.