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New understanding of how loneliness sabotages the immune system

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Researchers test what happens in the body from loneliness.

We all know when we’re stressed we’re more susceptible to illness. A new study shows loneliness, just like stress, can lower immune function and lead to poor health.

The finding comes from researchers a t the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University who studied a healthy group of overweight middle-aged adults and a group of breast cancer survivors.

The researchers used the UCLA Loneliness Scale that evaluates how people perceive social isolation and loneliness.

The investigators found people who are lonely had higher levels of cytokines called interleukin-6, or IL-6.

Lonely people also had elevated levels of inflammatory related proteins that are linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and frailty with aging than people who feel socially connected.

Lisa Jaremka, lead author of the study said in a press release, "It is clear from previous research that poor-quality relationships are linked to a number of health problems, including premature mortality and all sorts of other very serious health conditions.” She adds lonely people feel like they have poor relationships.

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Understanding what happens in the body that leads to poor health from loneliness could help with interventions.

As part of a series of tests, the researchers measured levels of antibodies in the blood that are produced when herpes viruses are reactivated. More lonely people had higher levels of antibodies signaling herpes activation.

Herpes outbreaks are also known to be triggered by stress. Loneliness might be a chronic stressor, according to the authors.

In other tests conducted on breast cancer survivors the researchers analyzed women whose average age was 52 for the presence of antibodies against Epstein-Barr virus and cytomegalovirus, which are both herpes viruses.

Socially isolated people had more antibodies against the cytomegalovirus and more pain, fatigue and depression.

Cytokine interleukin 1-beta that is proinflammatory and is expressed in higher levels in the aging brain was also elevated among lonely breast cancer survivors.

Even after the researchers controlled for sleep quality, age and other health factors, the results were still the same. Loneliness was associated with more inflammation that taxes the immune system, compared to people who felt socially connected.

January 19, 2013
Society for Personality and Social Psychology