Did You Know You Can Inherit Loneliness?

Can genes make you lonely?

Yes, if you're also prone to being neurotic and depressed, according to newswise.com.

It turns out loneliness is a heritable trait, but no one gene is responsible.  And it may not be as bad as all that.

Loneliness is linked to poor physical and mental health, and is an even more accurate predictor of early death than obesity, the web site reports. To better understand who is at risk, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine conducted the first genome-wide association study for loneliness — as a life-long trait, not a temporary state. They discovered that risk for feeling lonely is partially due to genetics, but environment plays a bigger role.

Just as physical pain alerts us to potential tissue damage and motivates us to take care of our physical bodies, loneliness — triggered by a discrepancy between an individual’s preferred and actual social relations — is part of a biological warning system that has evolved to alert us of threats or damage to our social bodies, researchers found.

But not everyone perceives loneliness in the same way.

“For two people with the same number of close friends and family, one might see their social structure as adequate while the other doesn’t,” say researchers. “And that’s what we mean by ‘genetic predisposition to loneliness’ — we want to know why, genetically speaking, one person is more likely than another to feel lonely, even in the same situation.”

The heritability of loneliness has been examined before, in twins and other studies of both children and adults. From these, researchers estimated that 37 to 55 percent of loneliness is determined by genetics. Previous studies also tried to pinpoint specific genes that contribute to loneliness, focusing on genes related to neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, or other cellular systems associated with human attachment, such as oxytocin. But, these studies mostly relied on small sample sizes, researchers point out.

Using a larger sample size in this new study, participants answered three well-established questions that measure loneliness.

  • How often do you feel that you lack companionship?

  • How often do you feel left out?

  • How often do you feel isolated from others?
And here's what they found: loneliness, the tendency to feel lonely over a lifetime, rather than just occasionally due to circumstance, is a modestly heritable trait — 14 to 27 percent genetic, as compared to the previous estimates of 37 to 55 percent.

This new estimate of the genetic contribution to loneliness could be lower than previous estimates because the research team relied on chip heritability, a method that only captures common genetic variations and not rare genetic variation.

The researchers also determined that loneliness tends to be co-inherited with neuroticism (long-term negative emotional state) and a scale of depressive symptoms. Weaker evidence suggested links between heritable loneliness and schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder. In contrast to previous studies, the researchers did not find loneliness to be associated with variations in specific candidate genes, such as "those that encode dopamine or oxytocin."

Who hasn't been lonely?  They say marriage can be one of the loneliest places and at times, I'd have to agree.  I like to be alone and I know there's a difference between that and loneliness, but sometimes, they can seem to be the same.


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