Feeling Lonely? This Can Be Dangerous For Your Health

First Posted: Nov 25, 2015 11:13 PM EST

Taking time for yourself is one thing, but feeling lonely can actually be dangerous to your health, according to a recent study.

Researchers at the University of Chicago found that social isolation--particularly in older adults--can increase the risk of premature death by as much as 14 percent. 

During the study, researchers examined loneliness in both humans and rhesus macaques while studying gene expression in leukocytes, which are cells that help protect the body against bacteria and viruses.

First, they looked at 141 older adults between the ages of 50 and 68 who were participants in the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study--36 of whom were classified as chronically lonely. Researchers found that in those suffering from chronic loneliness, their cells showed a decreased ability to fight viral infections.

Then, the study authors looked at the cellular processes that link social experience to CTRA gene expression ("conserved transcriptional response to adversity") in rhesus macaques at the California National Primate Research Center, which has been behaviorally classified as high in perceived isolation. The study findings showed that, similar to humans, "lonely like" monkeys exhibited higher CTRA activity, as well as higher levels of the flight-or-flight neurotransmitter norepinephrine.

Based on previous studies,  findings show that norepinephrine can help stimulate cells in bone marrow to make more of a particular kind of immune cell--an immature monocyte that shows high levels of inflammatory gene expression and low levels of antiviral gene expression. Both lonely humans and "lonely like" monkeys showed higher levels of monocytes in their blood, researchers say. 

In the monkeys, the scientists found that these pro-inflammatory changes in gene expression held extreme health consequences. When they infected the monkeys with simian immunodeficiency virus, the version of HIV in monkeys, the virus grew faster in both the blood and brains of the monkeys that were lonely than in those that were not.

For the future, they will continue to examine how loneliness may lead to poor health outcomes and, more specifically, how theses effects might be prevented in older adults. 

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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