Loneliness is an all-too-human emotion that poets, novelists, and songwriters have for centuries tried to capture in words in every language. But some researchers contend that it’s more than a feeling: It’s a scourge, an illness, a condition to be treated like a disease—and an infectious and deadly one at that.
According to a literature review, lacking a social connection is considered more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day and deadlier than obesity. Thus it makes sense how feeling alone can translate into physical ailments. Humans are social creatures, which doesn’t mean we simply enjoy being social; it means we need to be. It’s how we survive—together, in groups, finding strength in numbers even if, unlike our ancestors, we wouldn’t literally starve to death if we didn’t have a go-to crew.
Lacking a social connection is considered more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Being socially isolated, by contrast, hurts emotionally and psychologically, and its stresses take a physical toll. Persistent loneliness (lasting longer than two weeks) is linked to high blood pressure, depression, heart disease, and stroke among other conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease. This appears to be due to increased inflammation; in excess, inflammation is associated with chronic disease.
“People think of their relationships as related to emotional well-being; they don’t recognize the profound effect they have on physical health,” says Brigham Young psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D. According to Holt-Lunstad’s research, lonely people have a 26% increased likelihood of early death. For those who have little or no social contact, that rises to 29%, and it jumps to 32% for people who live alone. “We need to take our social relationships as seriously as we take our diet, exercise, nutrition, and everything else that we know impacts our health,” she says.
Why we’re lonelier than ever
If loneliness is a disease, it’s one that’s reached pandemic proportions. A growing number of Americans now live by themselves, which is one reason we’re experiencing greater loneliness than ever before. Another factor is the lightning-fast evolution of technology. “We have had more change in the last 24 years than we did in the previous 2,500,” says Dilip Jeste, M.D., director of UC-San Diego’s Department of Healthy Aging. “Social changes have been dramatic, and loneliness is definitely a part of that.” This is related to—but by no means all about—social media. In fact, according to a recent survey of 20,000 U.S. adults by Cigna, the loneliest members of Generation Z (people roughly between ages 7 and 22) are evenly split between those who use social media and those who don’t.
In general, young folks and the very oldest are known to be the loneliest, with people under age 20 registering as the loneliest of all, according to the Cigna poll. Younger people get lonely when they don’t feel they have many social connections; for them, it’s often a numbers game, and making more friends is usually within reach. The older adults, by contrast, opt for quality over quantity, and while saddened when loved ones die, they are developmentally better equipped to cope with that loneliness and loss. “They’re actually happier than you think,” says Dr. Jeste.
That’s why it’s the people in the middle of this U-curve (the 30-to-60 crowd) who researchers are coming to understand may be the most vulnerable of all, due to a mix of factors. Ironically, people in their middle years tend to be pretty busy with other humans—children, parents, coworkers, friends. We’re often frustrated by our lack of “alone time,” and it’s hard to imagine that people who are so darn busy can also feel lonely.
But loneliness is not simply about being alone. What it really hinges on is the quality of your relationships: The more satisfied you are with them, the less lonely you are. Middle age is when that dissatisfaction often runs highest—and when illness begins to brew. “The loneliness-related diseases old people get diagnosed with can take decades to develop, but often start to emerge on a cellular level in early middle age and even before then,” says Steve Cole, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, medicine, and biobehavioral science at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine