The new study found that loneliness and unhappiness can make us vulnerable to diseases by undermining our immune protection. The results of the study have not been published yet, but were presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual meeting in New Orleans.
Stress and disease
The way the researchers found the link between loneliness and low immune response was by investigating the level of antibodies produced by the latent Herpes virus, which exists without causing any symptoms in the majority of Americans. If the immune system is compromised, the virus starts getting active and produces antibodies. Antibodies trigger the production of more proteins linked to the inflammation related to acute stress. Chronic inflammation is believed to be the cause of a number of health conditions, such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.
The study was conducted on 200 breast cancer survivors whose blood was tested for the herpes antibodies. Latent herpes virus reactivation is associated with stress, what suggests that loneliness acts as a chronic stressor, triggering a week immune response. High levels of antibodies were also linked to more pain, fatigue and depression.
Loneliness and health
This is not the first study that links physical health with loneliness, particularly when it comes to the elderly. Two studies conducted by the researchers from the University of Chicago found the positive link between loneliness, cardiovascular health and sleep dysfunction.
While the link between stress and our physical health has been extensively studied, this is the first time that the researchers linked loneliness with the weakened immune system, which usually leads to less resistance to a number of health issues. The importance of such studies is growing, considering how rapidly our society is ageing. Nuclear families are leaving many elderly lonely, without a good social network, vulnerable to any number of diseases and premature mortality.
The goal of the scientists is to understand the relationship between loneliness and health and the exact process involved in order to find a way to counter any negative effects and maybe even intervene.
As far as the intervention goes, many of us who parked our elderly in the Homes should remember that providing comfort, food and medical care is not enough. Love, care, companionship and social interaction are also necessary part of a healthy and rich life.