Loneliness obviously has a powerful role in mental health, triggering symptoms of anxiety and depression when feelings of social isolation take a toll on our emotional wellbeing. The need to surround yourself with loved ones and a fulfilling circle of friends in order to maintain a happy, positive outlook on life is self-explanatory, but what is not often discussed are the potentially damaging effects of loneliness on physical health, as well.
One study published in the British Medical Journal found that feelings of isolation and loneliness in seniors between the ages of 65 and 86 led to a 64 percent increase in the risk of developing dementia, an extraordinary spike in odds highlighting the importance of fostering meaningful relationships at all stages of life. An additional study published in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that seniors experiencing strong feelings of loneliness felt debilitated in their everyday lives, resulting in trouble completing routine activities like bathing, getting dressed, walking and climbing stairs.
A 2013 study from the AARP reports that 40 percent of adults report frequent overwhelming sensations of loneliness, a number that has doubled from 20 percent in the 1980s. “Social isolation is a growing epidemic — one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences,” Dr. Dhruv Khullar, physician at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and a researcher at the Weill Cornell Department of Healthcare Policy and Research, wrote for The New York Times last year.
Contrary to popular belief, feeling lonely isn’t always a result of social isolation. Sometimes, it can be a physical symptom beyond our control. Researchers at Brigham Young University published a literature review this year detailing the complex relationship between loneliness and cardiovascular issues like coronary heart disease and stroke. They determined that social isolation increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and that the government and the medical community need to do more about it. “Given projected increases in levels of social isolation and loneliness in Europe and North America, medical science needs to squarely address the ramifications for physical health,” concluded the analysis.
New research is telling is that preventing loneliness is a critical component to staying healthy, much like eating right, exercising, and steering clear of vices like tobacco, drugs, and too much alcohol. The silver lining among all this rather depressing information regarding loneliness and physical health is that making time to be social isn’t just a weekend and after-work indulgence—it’s an essential investment in our overall health.