Loneliness is a world wide epidemic that carries with it risks to our mortality. It is on its way to becoming, if it is not already, the world’s most lethal condition.
The mortality risks are comparable to smoking and alcoholism and exceed those of physical inactivity and obesity. Loneliness is a risk factor for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, among other chronic health problems such as hypertension and coronary artery disease. It is also a risk factor for sleep, mobility, and dental problems and it is associated with higher rates of hospitalisation and nursing home admission. Lonely people are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. And it can impact our cognitive processes and lead to reduced resistance to disease.
Feelings of isolation have a serious detrimental effect on one’s mental and physical health. At the root, isolation compromises immunity, increases the production of stress hormones, and is harmful to sleep. All of this feeds chronic inflammation, which lowers immunity to the degree that lonely people even suffer more from the common cold.
In this way loneliness can be a chronic stress condition that ages the body and causes damage to overall well-being. Meanwhile denial of loneliness as well as the ways we involuntarily deal with it can be horribly self-defeating.
When we feel threatened by isolation, evolved responses drive us into a state of cognitive hypervigilance. We voraciously scour situations for social information that might allow us to reestablish personal connections.
Tragically, though, the very same hyper-alert state creates characteristic errors in social thinking that make us negatively misinterpret the information we detect. When we are lonely, we tend to misread others’ intentions as critical, competitive or threatening. We are less able to imagine things from their perspective.
Responses made with this mindset can easily provoke the rejection we most fear, causing a self-fulfilling feedback loop. Cacioppo in his excellent TEDX talk, points out that this is the Catch 22 of loneliness: to escape it, we need other people, but the emotion itself impairs our ability to attract them.
Connectedness is what we need. Yet facing that biological and evolutionary truth we can fall into behavioural traps that deny this and deny what living up to this need can mean
Loneliness means we’ve failed to fulfill one of the most fundamental needs: relationships with other people.
Health is wealth as I mention of my front page. Yet wealth is not simply financial freedom nor how healthily we eat and exercise – not true wealth. True wealth could be measured by the amount of care and support we both receive and give and the sense of community and part of a greater whole that we feel – one meaningful relationship at a time.