Loneliness puts a dent in our health, whether we realize it or not. According to a research team publishing their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, loneliness doesn’t only affect mental health, but it works to undermine physical health as well.
The research, supported by the National Institutes of Health, found that loneliness ups the risk of premature death by 14 percent with older adults. Termed perceived social isolation, loneliness could be associated to two physiological responses regarding 141 adults.
Firstly, perceived social isolation was linked to a compromised immune system. Secondly, the research team found that perceived social isolation is also linked to increased cellular inflammation. The process underpinning both physiological responses is known as CRTA, short from conserved transcriptional response to adversity. This process impacts the expression of genes in our body.
Loneliness puts a dent in our health and the research team found the mechanism underpinning this process. The influence of CRTA increases with the intensity of loneliness. Thus, white blood cells the role of which is to protect our bodies from infections are affected by CRTA. The expression of genes related to white blood cells decreases. As this happens, CRTA then increases the expression of genes related to inflammation.
The inflammation referred to here is occurring at the level of cells, not the common swells following an injury. Damage at the cellular level as inferred by CRTA is difficult to repair, actively contributing to undermining our health.
As such, the longer and more intense one experiences loneliness, the less the body is capable of fighting infections. In addition, damage at the cellular level is opening a gate to potential internal health problems manifesting through a wide range of symptoms. Loneliness or perceived social isolation is hurting us inside out.
The research team also found that there is a reciprocal relation between loneliness and CRTA. Over the course of one year, it was CRTA expression of genes which predicted loneliness. At the same time, loneliness predicted CRTA expression of genes. Working in tandem for a long while, loneliness and CRTA are fueling each other while our bodies are negatively affected.
According to the researchers, their findings are specifically linked to loneliness or perceived social isolation. At the same time, they cannot be explained by either depression or stress. The study was also conducted on rhesus macaques.
For the monkeys, social isolation had the same effect as on humans. The more isolated they were and their perceived social isolation grew in intensity, CRTA increased its levels. The same pattern relating to a weak immune system and the decrease of gene expression with white blood cell was observed.
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