Loneliness Kills

Loneliness stinks.  But did you know it's as bad as obesity, high blood pressure, lack of exercise or smoking when it comes to illness and early death, Jane Brody reports today in The New York Times.

Brody quotes a doctor who has studied this, John T. Cacioppo, an award-winning psychologist at the University of Chicago, who says loneliness is so detrimental and harmful because it "undermines people’s ability to self-regulate."  In one study done in Chicago, people who scored high on a test to determine loneliness ate far more fatty foods than people whose score was lower.

In another study, people made to feel disconnected from others ate many more cookies than those who felt more connected.  Cacioppo told Brody that lonely people will do whatever they can to make themselves feel better -- eat, smoke, drink, (in my case) shop, even have indiscriminate sex -- all to get rid of that clammy, awful feeling.

Loneliness can also hurt us by increasing stress hormones and increasing inflammation, which has been shown to lead to heart attacks, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, and can even result in cancer.  "The damage can be widespread, affecting every bodily system and brain function," Brody writes.

Loneliness has also been linked to cognitive decline, according to Brody.  In fact, in one study, it was traced back to a 64% increase in the risk of developing dementia.  She's quick to note that there's no proof that loneliness causes dementia.  But it is a risk factor.

And even having family and friends may not help. Brody quotes Cacioppo as saying that that doesn't help at all if there's no emotional connection.

"People are fundamentally social beings who require meaningful connections with others to maximize health and well-being," Brody observes.

So what to do if you're feeling alone and isolated?  Strangely enough, reaching out to others helps, Brody quots Cacioppo.  It worked for me when I was fired from a job in the Midwest and had a hard time reconnecting in my hometown.

Brody says the psychologist also suggests doing "random acts of kindness."  Help an older person across the street, complimenting a stranger's outfit (but be careful!), even bringing your neighbor's garbage pail back up his driveway after the truck picks up.

“What’s required,” he wrote, Brody reports, “is to step outside the pain of our own situation long enough to ‘feed’ others. Real change begins with doing.” You won’t know whether what you do will result in a genuine connection to another person unless you try.

Loneliness may hit all of us at some point in our lives.  Don't be afraid of it.  See what you can learn from it.  You may be surprised to find what it has taught you, in the end.


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