Feeling lonely? Reach out to your friends! Not only is loneliness an unpleasant condition, it can harm the body’s immune system, according to new research.
The study links loneliness to a number of dysfunctional immune responses, suggesting that being lonely has the potential to harm overall health.
Researchers found that people who were more lonely showed signs of elevated latent herpes virus reactivation and produced more inflammation-related proteins in response to acute stress than did people who felt more socially connected.
These proteins signal the presence of inflammation, and chronic inflammation is linked to numerous conditions, including coronary heart disease, Type-2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the frailty and functional decline that can accompany ageing.
Reactivation of a latent herpes virus is known to be associated with stress, suggesting that loneliness functions as a chronic stressor that triggers a poorly controlled immune response.
“It is clear from previous research that poor-quality relationships are linked to a number of health problems, including premature mortality and all sorts of other very serious health conditions. And people who are lonely clearly feel like they are in poor-quality relationships,” said Lisa Jaremka from Ohio State University.
The results are based on a series of studies conducted with two populations: a healthy group of overweight middle-aged adults and a group of breast cancer survivors.
The researchers measured loneliness in all studies using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a questionnaire that assesses perceptions of social isolation and loneliness.
Participants were 200 breast cancer survivors who were between two months and three years past completion of cancer treatment with an average age of 51 years. Their blood was analysed for the presence of antibodies against Epstein-Barr virus and cytomegalovirus.
Both are herpes viruses that infect a majority of Americans.
Lonelier participants had higher levels of antibodies against cytomegalovirus than did less lonely participants, and those higher antibody levels were related to more pain, depression and fatigue symptoms.
“No difference was seen in Epstein-Barr virus antibody levels, possibly because this reactivation is linked to age and many of these participants were somewhat older, meaning reactivation related to loneliness would be difficult to detect,” Jaremka said in a statement.
“The same processes involved in stress and reactivation of these viruses is probably also relevant to the loneliness findings,” Jaremka said.