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How Loneliness Can Be Deadly

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If you have a friend who’s lonely, it’s easy to understand how isolation can raise the person’s risk for mental and emotional problems, such as depression and anxiety.

New research shows that feeling alone doesn’t just downgrade your friend’s mood—it can actually make your friend sick and shorten his or her lifespan.

But you can easily do something about this!

If you have a friend or loved one who is essentially all by himself—and this can be someone of any age, by the way—you might literally save his life by reaching out and sending the message, “You aren’t really alone—you do have a support system.” And don’t worry—there are simple and fast ways to do this!

TOO MUCH ALONE TIME LEADS TO SICKNESS

For more than 20 years, University of Chicago social psychologist John T. Cacioppo, PhD, has studied loneliness, publishing numerous studies as well as the book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. And Dr. Cacioppo noted that among the many people he has evaluated to determine their levels of loneliness, the more lonely a person was, the more likely that person was to have…

  • High blood pressure. When you’re chronically isolated, your arteries stiffen, which makes your heart work harder, raising your blood pressure and damaging your blood vessels.
  • Increased stress. Dr. Cacioppo and his team detected elevated levels of the stress markers cortisol and epinephrine in urine samples in lonely individuals.
  • Trouble sleeping. Many lonely people toss and turn, wake repeatedly and almost never rise feeling refreshed.
  • Decreased immunity. Lonely people have increased activity in genes that promote inflammation and a slowdown in genes that reduce inflammation. This reduces the body’s resistance to viral and bacterial invaders.

BREAK THE TRAP OF ISOLATION

It’s easy to imagine how you could help a lonely person feel less lonely and therefore be much healthier—spend lots of time with him—but, being realistic, none of us has an unlimited supply of precious time! And your lonely loved one might live clear across the country. So I asked Dr. Cacioppo to tell me, based on his deep knowledge of the effects of loneliness, what are the most effective and efficient ways to brighten up a lonely person’s life. Here are his suggestions—they’re not hard to do, and they can be fun, to boot…

  • Go visit as little as once a month. It’s great if you can show up more often than this, but in reality, even monthly visits lasting just a few hours can have a profound effect on a person’s loneliness, Dr. Cacioppo said. And there is no need for your activity together to be exotic, either. You can ask your lonely friend or loved one to join you for a walk, dinner out, a book club meeting or a volunteering gig at a local center. If the person is homebound, plan a menu together and then go over and cook (together if possible!). Or just bring over a deck of cards or a board game. Dr. Cacioppo notes that the most meaningful time to visit is around holidays, when loneliness tends to peak.
  • Provide company from afar. If you live too far away from the lonely person or your schedule is too busy for a monthly visit, there are alternative ways to provide company. But you have to go the extra mile. Many people think that simply “friending” a lonely person on Facebook or including a lonely person on a group e-mail is enough to make him feel better—but it’s not, says Dr. Cacioppo. It’s not just about reaching out—it’s about interacting and engaging with the lonely person on a personal level. For example, picking up the phone and asking “How was your day?” once a week can help. Or perhaps you can play a game of “Words With Friends” on your computers or cell phones…e-mail (only that person) photos…or even make CDs of your favorite music and send them in the mail.
  • Connect the person to others. If you feel that a family member or friend is overwhelmingly isolated, contact the person’s local community center to see if there are any groups that he could join, depending on his interests. You can greatly multiply your power to help your loved one by bringing others into his life—it’ll be better for your friend and it’ll take some of the burden off your shoulders!
  • Call a therapist. When all else fails, coax him to make an appointment with a therapist, because, said Dr. Cacioppo, a therapist can provide a third-party, unbiased opinion and is trained to offer advice that has been proven by research to help people. Also, your loved one is more likely to listen to a therapist, because he is a professional (rather than a friend or family member). Sweeten the pot by offering to provide transportation and lunch afterward.
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Source: John T. Cacioppo, PhD, Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor, department of psychology, director, Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, University of Chicago. He is the coauthor of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, the founder of the field of social neuroscience and president of the Society for Social Neuroscience. Date: May 22, 2012 Publication: Bottom Line Personal
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