Loneliness Linked to Weaker Immune System

First Posted: Jan 21, 2013 01:48 PM EST

Researchers found that the level of loneliness accounts for a higher level dysfunctional immune responses in two groups of patients tested for this, suggesting that being lonely has the potential to harm overall health.

Testing for elevated latent herpes virus reactivation and the level of inflammation-related proteins in response to acute stress yielded the result that both symptoms were statistically significant higher in the group defined as lonely. The level of loneliness was measured by using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a questionnaire that assesses perceptions of social isolation and loneliness.

The level of inflammation-related proteins is significant for a number of serious diseases, with chronic inflammation being linked to conditions like coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer's disease, as well as aging related functional decline.

"It is clear from previous research that poor-quality relationships are linked to a number of health problems, including premature mortality and all sorts of other very serious health conditions. And people who are lonely clearly feel like they are in poor-quality relationships," said Lisa Jaremka, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University and lead author of the research.

"One reason this type of research is important is to understand how loneliness and relationships broadly affect health. The more we understand about the process, the more potential there is to counter those negative effects - to perhaps intervene. If we don't know the physiological processes, what are we going to do to change them?"

The researchers conducted their studies with two test populations: a healthy group of 141 overweight middle-aged adults and a group of 200 breast cancer survivors. Among the methods used were to obtain a snapshot of immune system behavior related to loneliness by gauging levels of antibodies in the blood that are produced when herpes viruses are reactivated, since this symptom is known to be associated with stress. That would in turn implicate loneliness as a chronic stressor that can trigger a poorly controlled immune response. The results showed that the lonelier participants had higher levels of antibodies against cytomegalovirus than did less lonely participants, and those higher antibody levels were also related to more pain, depression and fatigue symptoms.

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