Can feeling lonely put our health at risk? It would seem so, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of California. In fact, loneliness may lead to changes in the body that weaken our immune defenses and increase our risk of illness and early death—especially among seniors.
Results of the study, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveal that feeling isolated and alone is linked to a 14% greater risk of premature death among older adults (study participants included adults aged 50 to 68). Even more concerning, the physical changes triggered by loneliness may lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system.
According to researchers, those changes are linked to our natural “fight or flight” response—typically reserved for situations involving stress or fear—which affect white blood cell production in the immune system and in turn impact a healthy inflammatory response while at the same time decreasing our ability to fight infection.
“These results were specific to loneliness and could not be explained by depression, stress or social support,” study authors said. They plan to continue studying the effects of loneliness on physical health in older adults.