February 05, 2021

Credit: Justin Paget / Getty Images

It’s been nearly a year since increased isolation became the norm: since workplaces and schools shut down, hospitals and nursing homes stopped allowing visitors, and all of our social circles narrowed. 

The loneliness felt by so many during the pandemic may have affected our moods and feelings, but it can also have an impact on our bodies, according to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University.

Holt-Lunstad and Christina Victor, a professor of Gerontology and Public Health at Brunel University in London, dive into the science behind loneliness’s physiological toll, including its influence on life expectancy, as well as surprising research that challenges some common misconceptions about which groups suffer most from loneliness.

Three Takeaways:

  • Loneliness is more than a feeling. According to Holt-Lunstad’s research, loneliness can increase early death by up to 26 percent, meaning its health impacts exceed those of obesity and air pollution and equates to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness puts the body in a state “similar to threat,” eliciting a physiological response that leaves the lonely more susceptible to many chronic illnesses, she says. 
  • Younger adults suffer most from loneliness, an ailment that lessens with age, according to the findings of the BBC Loneliness Experiment, a massive 2018 survey of more than 46,000 participants from over 200 countries. According to Victor, who helped lead the study, about “25 percent of young adults will say they’re lonely and that goes down with age until you get to the 75 year olds” (and older), by which time only 3 to 5 percent of people report being lonely. Older adults also report having experienced loneliness most acutely during young adulthood, challenging the perception that loneliness is a problem of old age.
  • The long-term public health impacts of the loneliness COVID has wrought are still unknown. Holt-Lunstad worries that, even if people find effective ways to mitigate loneliness, “the shift that we have made in order to accommodate more social distancing may become more permanent,” leading to “systemic changes” that promote separation, like designing public spaces to accommodate social distancing and an uptick in remote work.

More Reading:

  • The Cleveland Clinic breaks down “What Happens in Your Body When You’re Lonely?”, in this article that explains that levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, are elevated in the bodies of those experiencing loneliness.
  • Here are the results of the BBC Loneliness Experiment Victor and her colleagues conducted in 2018 to “examine differences in the experience of loneliness across cultures, age, and gender.”
  • Though by no means a cure-all, Healthline has compiled resources for coping with loneliness (with tailored advice for teens, older adults, veterans, and immigrants), including suggestions for where to seek support.

Christina Victor, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, psychology, loneliness

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