Loneliness is something that we all experience at times. But can chronic loneliness pose serious health risks? A new article in Health Psychology suggests this might be true, particularly over the long term.
Two studies were conducted by researchers from the Ohio State College of Medicine, the National Cancer Institute, and the Ohio State College of Medicine to examine the long-term effects of loneliness on survival. The experience of social isolation has been associated with many medical conditions, including heart disease. Loneliness is a risk to relative survival that’s as high as being overweight or inactive. Even if other medical conditions are managed, loneliness can have a devastating effect on your health.
These two studies examined the effects of loneliness on depression, persistent pain, and fatigue clusters found in many chronic medical conditions. Because they can be mutually reinforcing, these three symptoms often appear together. They can also lower the quality of living and prolong survival. Research shows that lonely people are more likely to develop depression, fatigue, and pain over time. Based on the middle-range theory of unpleasant symptoms, these unpleasant symptoms impact long-term health outcomes.
The first study involved 115 older adults (average age 56.7), who were comprised of 49 survivors of cancer and 66 controls. Interviews took place six months after the surgery. Twelve months later, they were interviewed again. The questionnaire included questions about loneliness, pain, depression, fatigue, health outcomes, and other factors. Participants were also asked about their quality of sleep, exercise, and how often they did it. As you would expect, more lonely people had higher levels of fatigue, depression, and pain. One-year results showed that loneliness predicted changes in symptoms, with more rapid increases for those who were lonely. Even when additional factors such as quality of sleep and exercise were considered, the relationship between loneliness and the depression-fatigue-pain symptom cluster was still strong.
The second study involved 229 older adults (average 69.68), including 125 caregivers for a spouse with dementia and 104 non-caregiver. Because caregivers often experience more significant distress than those who live in the community, they were examined. Each of the four time periods was separated by one year. Participants in the study completed the questionnaires. Many of the questions were similar to those in the first study. However, the second study asked about marital quality. The results of the second study were identical to the first. Loneliness was strongly linked with depression, pain, fatigue, and increased symptoms. However, the relationship between loneliness & the other factors was significantly weaker than in the first study. This is because exercise and sleep quality was controlled. The effects of loneliness are worsened by poor sleep quality and lack of aerobic exercise.
Loneliness seems to be strongly associated with symptoms like depression, chronic pain, fatigue, and even suicide. This link is consistent across all age groups. The effects of loneliness on older adults’ health are also mitigated by aerobic exercise and sleep. Around 46 percent of adults report chronic pain, depression, and fatigue. Between 13 and 27 percent and 30 percent reported fatigue, 3 and 27 percent reported depression, and the rest reported pain. Many people also say both depression and fatigue.
It is difficult to know how loneliness can cause fatigue, depression, pain, and fatigue. Lonely people can slip into a “downward spiral,” making their depression and pain worse. This can lead to isolation. A good support network can help with depression and discomfort while being distressed can lead to isolation.
Is it possible to help people feel less lonely and reduce the depression and pain that goes with it? Although treatment focuses on individual symptoms, it can help people overcome loneliness and learn to manage pain and depression better. Although pain is often associated with diseases like arthritis, fatigue can be a side effect of treatments such as chemotherapy for breast cancer. However, overcoming loneliness can help people to cope with chronic illnesses.
It is possible to live a happier life by recognizing that loneliness can be just as severe as depression and pain.