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Loneliness Is Bad For Public Health, And It’s Up To Us To Fix It

Being alone can be good in small doses, but it’s reaching epidemic proportions, with disastrous results for our collective well-being.

Loneliness Is Bad For Public Health, And It’s Up To Us To Fix It
Alone, Wendell via Flickr

Social isolation isn’t good for you. A lack of contact shortens lifespans, and increases disease risk, research shows. And it’s something we should all be taking more seriously.

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In a wide-ranging essay in the New Republic, Judith Shulevitz shows how loneliness has a direct physical impact on our bodies. Rejection and abandonment, in particular, sets off a sort of pyscho-biological feedback loop that’s deeply harmful:

Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.

Shulevitz describes loneliness as “a public health crisis.” And one that’s getting worse. The elderly, for instance, are increasingly lonely. One-in-three adults 45+ were “chronically lonely” (lonely a long time) in a 2010 A.A.R.P. survey–up from one-in-five a decade earlier.

And then there’s the impact of divorce and inequality–particularly on kids. Children are increasingly lonely, Shulevitz says. And bad parenting and a lack of money maximize the sense of abandonment. “Single mothers don’t have a lot of time to spend with their children, nor, in most cases, money for emotionally enriching social activities.”

What can we do about it? One answer is to “change the way we think about health,” says Shulevitz–from something purely medical, to something more related to people’s situation, and standing. If health is linked to how much we interact, it’s up to all us to make more contact. Not just doctors.

“Loneliness research forces us to acknowledge our own extraordinary malleability in the face of social forces,” Shulevitz says. We are susceptible to socially made damage, but also capable of being cured by interaction, too.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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