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Loneliness is an invisible epidemic that affects millions of people every day. Everyone feels lonely at times in their lives, but chronic loneliness poses a serious health risk.
As Richard Lang, MD, chair of preventive medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio puts it, people need to attend to loneliness in “the same way they would their diet, exercise, or how much sleep they get.”
When your brain is on high alert, your body responds in kind. Morning levels of the stress hormone cortisol go up because you’re preparing for another stressful day. “We get a flatter diurnal cycle in that cortisol, which means it’s not shutting off as much at night,” Cacioppo says. As a result, sleep is more likely to be interrupted by micro-awakenings.
Cacioppo’s research suggests loneliness actually alters gene expressions, or “what genes are turned on and off in ways that help prepare the body for assaults, but that also increase the stress and aging on the body.”
The combination of toxic effects can impair cognitive performance, compromise the immune system, and increase the risk for vascular, inflammatory, and heart disease. Studies show that loneliness increases the risk for early death by 45 percent and the chance of developing dementia in later life by 64 percent. On the other hand, people who have strong ties to family and friends are as much as 50 percent less at risk of dying over any given period of time than those with fewer social connections.
There’s nothing unusual about feeling lonely. “It’s perfectly common for people to experience loneliness when their social networks are changing, like going off to college or moving to a new city,” says Harry Reis, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. The death of a loved one or marital discord can also trigger feelings of isolation. But there’s a difference between temporary “state” and chronic “trait” loneliness.
“Many of the patients we see have had situational loneliness that becomes chronic. They have been unable to rebuild after a loss or a move or retirement,” says psychiatrist Richard S. Schwartz, MD, co-author of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century. “One of the ways that situational loneliness can become chronic is precisely because of the shame we feel about our loneliness — the sense we have of being a loser.”

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