Researchers gave a survey to close to 230 people aged 50 to 68. They were asked to rate their feelings about statements such as, "I lack companionship" and "My social relationships are superficial."
The participants were then monitored for five years. The Los Angeles Times reports that:
“Researchers noted an association between feelings of loneliness and high blood pressure.
People who ranked as feeling most lonely had blood pressure levels 14.4 points higher than those who felt least lonely. Increases in systolic blood pressure were cumulative, so those who had higher levels of loneliness at the beginning of the study had greater blood pressure increases over the years.”
Feelings of loneliness are incredibly common, and, ironically, even as the physical distance between people has shrunk, emotional “isolation” is on the rise.
Up to one-quarter of Americans say they are frequently lonely, and this number is expected to rise in coming years. Loneliness expert John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, credits the rising rates of loneliness to two major factors: longer lifespans leading to more years in widowhood and a rise in single-person households.
Of course, it’s possible to feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by people, and although many do, few will readily admit it. Our society has developed as one that values self-reliance and independence, so much so that a person may feel ashamed of their need for companionship.
This need, however, is quite natural and if not fulfilled over time can lead to a host of mental and physical problems. While most everyone feels lonely from time to time, staying lonely can take a major toll on your physical health.
How Loneliness Harms Your Health
Negative emotions will invariably impact your physical well-being, and loneliness is no different. The latest research reveals that feeling lonely raises your blood pressure up to 14 points, with greater increases coming the more years the lonely feelings persist.
This is far from the only study linking loneliness to health repercussions. A separate study found the risk of developing dementia increased about 51 percent for each one-point increase on a loneliness scale.
What’s interesting, though, is that brain deposits that normally develop in Alzheimer’s patients were not seen among those who were lonely, indicating that the emotion triggers dementia through a different mechanism such as higher levels of stress hormones, cancer or high blood pressure (all of which are more likely to occur in lonely people).
Other studies have also shown that being socially isolated can cause health problems including weakening your immune system and resulting in sleep dysfunctions.
Further, in what Cacioppo described as "slowly unfolding pathophysiological processes," his research demonstrated that people who are lonely are more likely to:
- Be depressed
- Suffer from alcoholism
- Report higher levels of perceived stress
- Have fewer positive social interactions
More Evidence of Your Mind-Body Connection
It truly is amazing how much your mindset can influence your physical health, but study after study continues to bear this out. Your mind-body connection is a powerful force that can either bolster or destroy your health.
One reason for this has to do with epigenetics, which centers on the notion that environmental factors such as stress and your diet influence the expression of your genes.
It is the expression of your genes -- NOT the genes themselves -- that dictates whether you develop certain diseases or age prematurely.
You see, as you age your genome does not change but your epigenome changes dramatically, especially during critical periods of life, such as adolescence. It is influenced by physical and emotional stresses -- how you respond to everything that happens in your environment, from climate change to final exams to childhood abuse.
So if you are chronically lonely, this negative emotion will influence the expression of your genes, and thus directly impact your tendency to develop disease.
This also explains why, as Dawson Church cites in his book The Genie in Your Genes: Epigenetic Medicine and the New Biology of Intention, heart surgery patients who have a strong social support network and spiritual practice have a mortality rate 1/7th of those who do not!
Outstanding Solution -- Companion Pets
A dog or cat can provide unconditional love and comfort, and studies show that owning a pet can help protect against loneliness, depression and anxiety. In fact, dogs are often brought to nursing homes, hospice settings and hospitals for this very reason.
The bond that forms between a person and a companion pet can be incredibly fulfilling, and serves, in many ways, as an important and rewarding relationship. As the American Veterinary Medical Association states:
“The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment.”
The research on this is really quite profound. For instance, having a dog as a companion could add years to your life, as studies have shown that owning a dog played a significant role on survival rates in heart attack victims.
Studies have also revealed that people on Medicaid or Medicare who own a pet make fewer visits to the doctor. The unconditional acceptance and love a dog gives to their owner positively impacts their owner's emotional health in ways such as:
- Boosting self-confidence and self-esteem
- Promoting communication between elderly residents and neighbors
- Helping people cope with illness, loss and depression.
- Reducing stress levels
- Helping to meet new friends
- Providing a source of touch and affiliation
Along with companionship, dogs and cats satisfy our human need for close physical contact and touching. This actually works on a hormonal level, as well as an emotional one.
Research from the University of Missouri-Columbia suggests the hormonal changes that occur when humans and dogs interact could help people cope with depression and certain stress-related disorders. An example of this is spending a few minutes petting your dog -- this simple act prompts the release of a number of "feel good" hormones in humans, including serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin.
If you’re looking to add a new furry member to your family, check out your local animal shelter. Most are filled with cats and dogs looking for someone to love. Petfinder.com is also an excellent resource for finding a pet companion … it allows you to search through nearly 300,000 adoptable pets from over 13,000 adoption groups so you can find just the right match for you.
Other Tips for Overcoming Loneliness
As I said earlier, it is completely natural to crave companionship. You are a social creature that thrives on social support and meaningful personal relationships.
That said, the road to overcoming loneliness is two-fold:
- Creating more fulfilling social ties
- Learning to enjoy your alone time
For the latter, I suggest putting some attention on your emotional energy. It is likely that you need to let go of some of your limiting beliefs, stress, and also your past emotional "baggage," all of which may be keeping you in a lonely emotional state.
I believe that Meridian Tapping Technique/Emotional Freedom Technique (MTT/EFT) can be highly effective for this purpose, and can be a key player in your journey to finding your own inner happiness.
Now, once you are feeling secure with yourself, it’s time to devote some attention to creating new relationships. This doesn’t have to be as daunting as it may sound, no matter what stage of life you are in. I recommend:
- Exploring new hobbies and interests that ignite your natural curiosity and passions. Deep friendships naturally form among people with similar interests.
- Volunteering or joining a club or organization in your area. Book clubs, adult sports leagues, holistic moms groups, even food coops can all lead to new relationships.
- Making an effort to re-establish old relationships and cultivate new ones. This could be with family you’ve lost touch with, friends from college, or a new neighbor across the street. The Internet is also an increasingly popular way to meet new people!