Last week, I touched on our fundamental human requirement for interconnectedness as something we far too often fail to see as a basic need. It’s what David Allan, CNN editorial director of Health and Wellness, refers to as the importance of “the decency we exchange with those around us.” What happens when we lose touch with this essential need for interconnectedness? What happens when we find ourselves alone?
Numerous studies have shown that loneliness makes our bodies feel under attack. When that happens, physical and psychological stress responses are triggered. Loneliness can increase blood pressure and cholesterol. Unrelenting loneliness can suppress immune system function as well as significantly increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease. According to a Psychology Today report, it can even cause a person’s skin temperature to drop. Scientists believe that, given all the drastic ways in which loneliness impacts our bodies, it represents as great a risk for our long-term health and longevity as smoking.
It’s likely that we all have experienced the ache of loneliness at some point in our lives. Experts place the percentage at well over 40 percent of us. Yet, though it is a widespread condition, we’re generally unaware of the dramatic ways it affects our minds and bodies. If allowed to become a persistent condition, it can lead to an isolated and disconnected life. And with it comes significant threats to a person’s mental and physical health, as well as their life expectancy.
It’s not like we don’t talk about loneliness. You’ll find it in the title of more than 150 popular songs. And while we most often associate loneliness with old age, I don’t think that’s what Don Gibson had in mind in 1957 when he penned his classic country hit, “Oh Lonesome Me” – or what was on the minds of artists like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn or Neil Young when, in later years, they released their hit versions of the tune.
Come to find out, many of our assumptions about loneliness have been dead wrong. According to a recent study from the University of Cologne and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago examining loneliness throughout the human lifespan, adults under 30 reported significantly higher levels of loneliness than almost any other age group studied.
Because of its association with old age, young and middle-aged adults in the past have often underreported feelings of loneliness when directly asked about it in research studies, lest they be stigmatized. Yet there are phases in midlife at which the risk of debilitating effects of loneliness is high; according to study findings, particularly in the early thirties and in the fifties. They go on to say that the high numbers for these age groups also cannot be explained by the usual factors that cause loneliness. At present, the causes have yet to be fully clinically explored or explained.
Psychologists describe loneliness as dependant entirely on the subjective quality of our relationships; on whether we feel emotionally and/or socially disconnected from those around us. This may help explain why studies show that approximately 60 percent of lonely people are married. A marriage license does not exclude someone from feeling disconnected from their partner and alone. People who aren’t isolated can still feel lonely.
Experts can, however, explain fairly accurately why older people tend to get lonely. The usual social connections they have in younger life end up changing as they get older. As we age, friendships that have sustained us over the years begin to trail off. Companions and confidants may become ill or die. According to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, those who reported loneliness were also more likely to develop difficulties with activities of daily living.
Yet old age in itself, researchers concluded, is not necessarily a risk factor for loneliness. The University of Cologne and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago study found that loneliness in people over 80 to be primarily due to factors such as the absence of a spouse or partner as well as the individual’s functional limitations due to aging or illness.
And what is our tendency when we see someone isolated or lonely – young or old? Do we reach out and make this person feel a part or our world? Studies show the opposite: that loneliness has a stigma, and stigmas form barriers. While we are quite able to spot and identify the lonely people around us, one study re-affirmed that people’s reaction was to push these lonely souls to the fringes of social networks, along with those who befriend them.
Social workers and researchers have long known of the power of simple friendship in helping to save lives and promote health, that it should play a central role in dealing with the growing social and clinical problem of loneliness. Maybe in moving forward to deal with this problem, we should draw upon simple biblical concepts of the past: to love our neighbor as ourselves; treat others as you would want them to treat you; or the core concept of brotherly love and extending an unconditional hand of friendship.
If you are reading this and are among the lonely, I hope you will seek help and take steps to fight it. And if you know someone who is isolated and lonely, you will take steps to make them feel interconnected.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.