5 ways loneliness can negatively affect your health

5 ways loneliness can negatively affect your health

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How people experience loneliness can vary, but its effects can be profound and wide-ranging, especially on our health.

It’s why Loneliness Awareness Week is raising awareness about how isolating loneliness can be and empowering people to make connections across the UK and worldwide.

“Loneliness is an emotion that all of us will feel at some point in our lives. When we feel lonely, it’s because we aren’t getting enough social interaction,” said Lisa Gunn, mental health prevention lead at Nuffield Health.

“If loneliness is affecting your life, you’re not on your own. Our 2024 Healthier Nation Index found that 34% of people in the UK say loneliness has had a negative impact on their physical or mental health in the last 12 months.”

“The findings also showcased the shift in age demographics, with young people twice as likely to feel lonely than older people – 46% of 16-24-year-olds surveyed, feel lonely or socially isolated compared to only 16% of over 65s.”

She added: “Loneliness isn’t just about being physically apart from others. Loneliness includes the emotional state of feeling disconnected or mentally detached. This makes sense, as now more than ever, we are shaped by our social environment and the nature of the bonds that we experience.”

So what are the different ways loneliness could be impacting your health? Health experts share everything you need to know.

What can cause loneliness?

For Gunn, you might find you’re lonely because you aren’t seeing people regularly enough.

“The summer months can often come with heightened feelings of loneliness when it can feel like everyone is out enjoying holidays with friends and you don’t have people to make these memories with,” she said.

Sometimes you can also feel lonely when you’re around people. This is what Gunn said is typically accompanied by feelings of emptiness or disconnection.

“Certain life events like a break-up, bereavement, or retirement can cause you to feel lonely. The space left by someone or something can mean we suddenly become a lot less sociable,” she said.

“There are also instances where time spent with people can cause us to feel lonely. For example, having a baby or starting a new job can mean new social circles, but ones that don’t necessarily satisfy our social needs.”

Heart disease and strokeFor the superintendent pharmacist at Pharmica, Carolina Goncalves, loneliness, especially chronic loneliness, can have a negative impact on our health.

“Research shows that loneliness and poor social relationships are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke,” she said.

“Chronic loneliness can cause psychological stress, raising levels of stress hormones, which can damage arteries over time, leading to conditions such as hypertension and atherosclerosis.

Production of pro-inflammatory cytokines

Additionally, Goncalves also said that studies suggest that stress and social isolation can increase the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines (signalling proteins that control inflammation).

“Increased inflammation may promote the growth of plaques, loosen plaque in your arteries, and trigger blood clots, which can contribute to the development and progression of heart disease and stroke,” she said.

Stress

Due to increased stress caused by loneliness, many individuals take up habits such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption to try to block out the feeling of loneliness. These habits have a detrimental effect on health.

“Smoking can damage blood vessels and narrow arteries, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. The chemicals in cigarettes, such as nicotine and carbon monoxide, also raise blood pressure and reduce oxygen in the blood, putting strain on the heart,” said Goncalves.

“Heavy drinking can lead to high blood pressure by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, causing the heart to beat faster and blood vessels to constrict.”

Depression

According to Gunn, chronic loneliness can impact our physical health as well as our mental health, causing as much harm as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

“It’s associated with twice the risk of early death compared to obesity and is linked to high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, heart attacks and strokes,” she said.

“The social impact of loneliness can also not be ignored. Feeling isolated from others can lead to an increased risk of developing mental health conditions like depression.”

Type 2 diabetes

Research has found that loneliness can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

“A study reported that feelings of loneliness were associated with a 14% increased risk of type 2 diabetes. This could be due to the higher stress levels associated with loneliness,” said Goncalves.

“Higher stress levels result in heightened levels of cortisol, which can increase blood sugar levels and insulin resistance, key contributors to type 2 diabetes.”

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