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How loneliness can impact the immune system

Past studies show that maintaining strong social relationships can lower a person’s risk for certain health conditions. But researchers are still working to unravel the mystery about how having an active social life, or the lack of one, can influence physical health.

Findings from two related studies recently presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology offer new insights into how loneliness can weaken the immune system, increase sensitivity to physical pain and contribute to inflammation in the body.

One study looked at overweight but otherwise healthy middle-aged adults, while the second evaluated breast cancer survivors. In both studies, participants completed stress tests, provided blood samples and had their social lives evaluated using the UCLA Loneliness Scale.

As reported today in the Atlantic:

The loneliest of the otherwise healthy participants had more markers of inflammation when tasked with a stressful activity, like speaking in front of others or doing math.

The lonelier breast cancer survivors, in addition to increased inflammation, experienced more pain, depression, and fatigue. Reactivation of latent herpes viruses, which tends to be triggered by stress, can also be used a measure of immune response. Here, those who scored higher for loneliness showed more signs of herpes reactivation.

Researchers say the results suggest that being lonely can cause people to experience daily life as more stressful, which may cause chronic stress and in turn disrupt the immune system.

The findings related to breast cancer survivors reminded me of research (subscription required) by Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel, MD, on depression and survival rates among this group. Spiegel discussed his findings and the physiological connection between depression and breast cancer in this past Scope Q&A.

Previously: The scientific importance of social connections for your health, Examining how your friends influence your health, Can good friends help you live longer? and New research confirms connection between loneliness, poor health
Photo by Ernst Moeksis

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