Connected but alone: Health threats of loneliness

By: Sanford Health News .

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Loneliness won’t cause a rash or zap strength like the flu, but it can still have powerful, adverse effects on a person’s health and well-being. People are now technologically connected to almost everyone, yet more than ever society struggles with loneliness.

“We’ve all experienced loneliness in some way. It’s part of being human,” said Lanelle McAllister, R.N., Sanford Health faith community nurse. “The hard part is that it can’t just be solved like a puzzle. It can just be softened and alleviated so that it’s less painful.”


Every person experiences loneliness differently. On the most basic level, it’s a negative emotional response to feelings of isolation. Loneliness can make people of all ages feel restless, discontent or sad. It can result from many situations including illness, hearing loss or life changes such as retirement or the loss of a spouse. In the United States, roughly 1 in 3 people older than 65 lives alone and over half of those are older than 85.

A University of California, San Francisco study published in 2012 showed that 43 percent of people over 60 felt lonely. The study also concluded that elderly who live alone are at 45 percent greater risk for death.


Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline, compromise the immune system and increase the risk of heart disease. Those who are experiencing loneliness, including young children, teenagers and adults, may have a change in sleep habits and the ability to care for themselves. Emotional isolation can be especially damaging to the elderly as their social integration can decline as connections from younger years change or fade.

“Everyone experiences loneliness to a certain degree, but if it’s pervasive and persistent, and for some people permanent, that’s when it really plays into health effects,” McAllister said. “A lot of people, if you’re living through it, probably don’t recognize it as a threat to their health.”

Medical lens

Loneliness isn’t always about being alone but rather feeling alone. It can be distressing on different levels at different times. McAllister believes that patients can benefit from understanding loneliness through a medical lens.

“If you put a name to a feeling, you can then identify it and recognize it as something to work on,” she said.

Patients can be reluctant to talk about feeling lonely. John T. Cacioppo, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and director of the university’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, has been studying loneliness since the 1990s. In many of his studies, Cacioppo has found that loneliness carries a negative connotation, signaling social weakness or an inability to stand on one’s own.

“It can be embarrassing,” McAllister said. “It can have a stigma attached to it that makes people not want to bring it up – or if they do bring it up it might make some people feel uncomfortable.”

Health care providers can help ease these anxieties by making patients feel genuinely cared for and empowering them to be involved in their own care. Providers can ask patients about their social connections and encourage them to seek out activities that foster interaction.

If you know someone who may be suffering from loneliness, simple gestures can make a big difference. Reaching out with a phone call or a plan to meet up for coffee can be all it takes to combat loneliness and protect their health.

Posted In General, Health, Healthy Living