Along with the isolation of our seniors, many experts believe an across-the-board loneliness epidemic is developing in the United States. It is worth looking at what such an epidemic could mean. While research on loneliness in the U.S. remains scarce, a 2012 study found that between 20 and 43 percent of American adults over the age 60 experience “frequent or intense” loneliness. The study concluded that feeling lonely can increase a person’s risk of dying early by 26 percent.
Research on young adults and loneliness in this country is also sparse. What does exist suggests loneliness as a health crisis knows no barriers. A UCLA-Berkeley study published last year found that even though adults between 21 and 30 had larger social networks, they reported twice as many days spent feeling lonely or socially isolated as adults between 50 and 70.
Research also shows it can be difficult for men to hold on to friendships as they age. It is a problem that begins in adolescence. In a podcast of the Hidden Brain, New York University psychology professor Niobe Way, who has spent decades interviewing adolescent boys, says that half the population – those on the male side – get the message from an early age that needing others is a sign of weakness and that being vulnerable is unmanly.
Last year, Emma Seppala, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, gathered a group of about 20 fathers, all in their 30s and 40s, at a home in Oakland, California to talk fatherhood. When asked how many of them had “real friends” – the kind of confidantes with whom they could talk on a regular basis honestly and vulnerably about life – only two people raised their hands.
It is tempting to interpret such isolation as a crisis of masculinity in this country, but Seppala cautions against it. Available research suggests loneliness is a problem that supersedes gender. A sociological study shows 25 percent of Americans, regardless of gender, report having no one with whom to share a personal problem. The same study showed the leading reason people seek out counseling is loneliness.
With strong social networks, people are likelier to have healthier habits, more reasons to leave the house and keep active; with people in their life to remind them to eat right, exercise, and take any prescribed medicine. It should not be surprising to learn a recent research review suggests older adults who are socially isolated are less likely to see doctors or visit health clinics than their peers who have close ties to many friends and family members. Their loneliness does not drive these seniors to see doctors. When they do connect with medical help, there is a good chance they will bring with them poorer mental health or wellbeing, which has resulted in poorer physical health. This may make longer hospital stays and more repeat visits necessary.
The health toll that is placed on the bodies of lonely people – regardless of age – is considerable. They are more likely to have high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Those cardiovascular effects are frequently attributed to cortisol, known as the “stress hormone.” Studies of loneliness have shown lonely people have consistently elevated levels of cortisol. Lonely people tend to also have reduced rates of immunity, making them more susceptible to illness in general.
Lonely people are especially susceptible to chronic inflammation, which is considered a key component in a wide range of health maladies, from heart disease, Alzheimer’s, to certain types of cancer; as well as rheumatoid arthritis and clogged arteries.
A 2002 National Institutes of Health study on loneliness found lonely people took longer to fall asleep than non-lonely people, slept for a shorter time, and had “greater daytime dysfunction.”
Yet, in spite of the known consequences of loneliness, interventions to strengthen social relationships and reduce loneliness have yet to find their place as important public health strategies.
There is now growing clinical support for assessing the risk of loneliness and loneliness-related health problems as part of medical training. It is time doctors begin to communicate to patients how to prevent loneliness and encourage patients to take it seriously as part of a healthy lifestyle.
We Americans like to think of ourselves as independent, unique and autonomous. This mindset has long been part of our Protestant work ethic. It is now believed that our quest for independence may also be responsible for our current crisis of loneliness. From birth through old age, we need to feel we belong.
As men and women grapple with new definitions and forms of masculinity and femininity in the wake of the #MeToo movement, we now have a rare opportunity to create new cultural norms based upon authenticity and vulnerability – considered key elements to building authentic social connections; as our safety net against isolation, loneliness and illness.
We all are faced with challenges in life. Many of those same difficulties are shared by the people around us. As Dr. Seppala points out, when we stop trying to emphasize what makes us different from, or better than everyone else, and instead focus on what we all have in common, we feel a lot less alone in the world. It is in sharing our fears and insecurities that we find true binding relationships.
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.