Being Lonely Disrupts Sleep, Affects Health

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A lack of social connections has been shown to poorly affect physical and mental health. Researchers have found one way that this occurs – disrupted sleep. Sleep is essential to good health, and those who reported being lonely in a recent study published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine journal Sleep are more likely to experience sleep fragmentation.

Researchers with the University of Chicago conducted a cross-sectional study of members of two Hutterite colonies in South Dakota. The Hutterites are a communal group of Anabaptists that can trace their roots back to 16th century Europe much like the Mennonites and the Amish. Members of the community share all resources, follow a similar daily schedule, and eat the same diet. Social isolation is rare.

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A total of 95 adults (mean age 39.8) were interviewed, answering questions about feelings of loneliness and symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. To assess loneliness, the team asked three questions about how often the participants felt lack of companionship, felt left out, and felt isolated from others. The volunteers also wore wrist actigraphs which measured sleep duration and level of restlessness during the night.

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Overall, in the close-knit community, feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety were low. However, those who reported loneliness were more likely to have higher levels of sleep disruption, even after adjusting for factors such as age, body mass index, and sleep apnea risk. For each unit increase on the “loneliness scale, there was an accompanying 8% increase in sleep fragmentation, meaning they awoke more often during the night and had more tossing and turning.

Being lonely was not associated with sleep duration, self-reported sleep quality, or daytime sleepiness.

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Dr. Lianne Kurina PhD notes that the findings of this study are consistent with previous studies and “lend support to the hypothesis that sleep quality…may be one pathway through which feelings of social connectedness influence future health.”
Last year, Dr. John Cacioppo PhD, also with the University of Chicago, found that changing how a person perceives and thinks about others is the most effective intervention for loneliness. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, a technique also used for treating depression, was particularly effective.

"Effective interventions are not so much about providing others with whom people can interact, providing social support, or teaching social skills as they are about changing how people who feel lonely perceive, think about, and act toward other people," Cacioppo said.

Source references:
Kurina L, et al "Loneliness is associated with sleep fragmentation in a communal society" Sleep2011; DOI: 10.5665/sleep.1390. (American Academy of Sleep Medicine)
C. M. Masi, H.-Y. Chen, L. C. Hawkley, J. T. Cacioppo. A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness.Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2010; DOI:10.1177/1088868310377394

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