Life-shortening effects of loneliness

Posted on 18 April 2019

Mental illness is one side effect of loneliness, but so is a greater risk of poor physical health and premature death.

Professor Edward (Eddie) Wolff, a clinical psychologist practising at Mediclinic Sandton, says loneliness is not a finite condition – it can be objective or subjective – but either way, it impedes physical and mental health.


Belonging vs Being lonely

Objective loneliness is the actual physical isolation that can occur after rejection, abandonment or the death or loss of a loved one or significant other.

Subjective loneliness is the feeling of being alone even when you’re not really alone. This perceived isolation or loneliness stems from a dissatisfaction with your social relationships.

“We first thought subjective loneliness only happened in old age due to declining cognitive abilities, or the death of a loved one. These individuals would become lonely and perceive to be socially isolated,” says Professor Wolff.

However, he reports that teenagers and young adults today are at similar risk of subjective loneliness, which is a risk factor for poor mental health. In terms of physical health, it is a risk factor for dementia, chronic diseases, and most importantly higher mortality.

“The higher mortality relates specifically to inflammatory conditions,” he explains. “The possibility of stroke and chronic heart disease, influenza, depression and anxiety, is also greater.”


Social support

According to Professor Wolff, being married or living in a family or shared household lowers mortality rates.

Okinawa in Japan has gained attention from Dan Buettner’s Blue Zone research into longevity because of the high concentration of centenarians in the area. One of the leading causes for the people of Okinawa leading such long lives is attributed to their close-knit friend groups called Moais (Mo-ai)

Studies have also shown that people with large, diverse social networks have a lower mortality risk compared to those with small and less diverse social networks.


How loneliness affects the body

The effect of the perception (or fact) of loneliness on the body is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes per day, which makes loneliness more dangerous than obesity.

“Loneliness poses a greater risk of premature death, physical inactivity and obesity. What we find now is that the connections between loneliness and impaired health are:

  1. Poorer cardiovascular health
  2. Compromised immune function

The chemical pathways at play are through stress-related hormones: adrenalin, cortisol, decreased level of serotonin, which lead to greater occurrence of inflammatory conditions.

Hormone imbalance happens to men, too [Internal link to April content]


Social and emotional exclusion

Perceived social isolation is more dangerous and insidious than actual social isolation. While the latter also causes stress, the former is a [precursor to social emotional exclusion – when you feel you are emotionally and socially excluded from people around you (e.g. your family). Professor Wolff explains that this perception causes a specific form of internally-generated stress (not objective stress).

“You want more social interaction, you want the comfort and the warmth of belonging to emotionally meaningful relationships – but you cannot achieve that,” he explains.

He continues: “You are more predisposed to the stress of social and emotional exclusion as an adult if you were exposed to family violence, neglect, loss (i.e. the youngest child in a divorcing marriage), or bullying (physical/social/emotional) at a young age.”

“As an adult you are more susceptible to feeling rejected, abandoned or bullied,” adds Professor Wolff. These children are primed or made vulnerable by earlier childhood experiences and they develop an exaggerated fear of abandonment or rejection by peers.

“These individuals are more likely to develop poor lifestyles as adults, characterised by bad eating habits, little physical activity, drug and alcohol use, obesity and smoking.”


Get help

If you are struggling to make connections or with feelings of being isolated in social setting like work or at home, consult your GP who can recommend next steps.




Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life


Published in Healthy Life

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