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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

The Health Dangers of Loneliness

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 22nd 2007

According to the Oxford American Dictionary the word, lonely, is defined as "having no friends or companionship, being solitary, and having no family who cares for the individual." The dictionary goes on to state that being lonely promotes a sense of sadness as a result of this isolation.

Dr. James J. Lynch, PhD, an expert on stress and health, has written a couple of important and popular books on the health consequences of loneliness. The first is titled The Broken Heart, The Medical Consequences of Loneliness, and an updated version of the same text entitled A Cry Unheard, New Insights Into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness. In each book he makes a compelling argument, back up by plenty of statistics across the nation, for loneliness leading to all types of diseases, especially cardiovascular types, leading to heart attacks and early death. He goes on to point out that the combination of the breakdown of the American family structure along with a very high rate of divorce and single parenting has left huge numbers of people vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness.

Now, two University of Chicago psychologists, Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo, completed a study of the effects of loneliness on people as they age. Their results were reported in Current Directions In Psychological Science. What they found, after studying and comparing two groups of people for many years, (one group was college age and the second group was in their late 50's) all people experience various types of stress throughout life but lonely people have poor coping skills. People who are lonely feel helpless, threatened and, interestingly, fail to seek help for the problems with which they are struggling. This failure further reinforces their loneliness and helplessness.

Among the health consequences for these older lonely people was high blood pressure leading to serious and dangerous diabetes and heart disease. To be specific, lonely people were found to have high level of stress hormones in their bodies, such as epinephrine. Chronically high levels of these stress hormones promote cardiovascular disease.

It is important to state that everyone needs time to be alone. However, having some alone time while being involved with family and friends stands in sharp contrast to the chronic state of loneliness.

The two researchers from the University of Chicago warn that loneliness and its consequences pose an ever greater problem as American society continues to age.

How to Fight Loneliness:

Whether retired or not, there are many things people can do to prevent loneliness. For one, there is a constant need for volunteers. Whether it is in the public library, a local hospital, a nursing home, or the Human Society, volunteers are needed and sought after. What is reinforcing about do this type of thing is that it creates the opportunity to meet and make friends with other volunteers while becoming involved in the community. In this way, it actually becomes difficult to remain lonely for very long.

Dr. Lynch makes, in my opinion, a valid point when he says that involvement in one's religious organization wards off loneliness. The reason for this is that, whether people are religious or not, involvement in the Church, Synagogue or Mosque, promotes social involvement and creates a sense of belongingness.

Your comments are welcome.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    my experience - lUCY - May 26th 2011

    I am completing a service proposal graduate paper; I graduate next month with a masters in social work.  Thus, I thrive on behavior observation since I was a child.  Brain/emotions and biology are tightly connected.  Yet, the short answer / advice to loneliness drowning is outreach to others.  Take away the focus on self and this behavior feeds the self to health.  I understand loneliness too.  Within the past 6 years I lost both of my parents & I was very close to them.  Although, I had many siblings, I grew up as an only child due to the age difference among us (and different dads).  My life felt very seperate, but I stretched to explore my potential.  Now I am in recoop stage and KNOW I'll accept what is (dead parents and poor sibling bonding) and will live as full a life as any.  I love my sons, seek for God, enjoy a tree and smile at animals.  People are OK too.  REACH and CREATE what you want...put flyers out to gather people to join you in an interest or project.  Breath in the social fear and all will be MANAGED.  Love ya 

    lonely - laquatia - Oct 3rd 2010

    m im lonely because i work to much and never hav enough money im lonely because i dont have enough education to show them off. im lonely because i dont have enough social skills to spark up a witty conversation. overall i am a dull person who cant drink anymore which use to be something i shared with the majority of people in the world. drinking use to take nervous edge off and now i cant because of my excessive eating and drinking just to be comfortable with people have caught up to my health i do not feel normal although i try to do normal things like go to school. my lack of understanding of other people take a very big toll on my performance in schoo (college that is). i really feel lost and confused, sad and almost cry everyday because of something. how will this help me? off 

    also lonley - stacey - May 9th 2010

    The break down of my family, what little there is of it- my parents both died with in the last few years, leaving me with my 2 middle aged childless sisters. The oldest is 57 , with years of smoking and inactivity have left her as frail as an 87 year old. In and out of the hospital every month of so. Her smoking a cigarette while trying to stand with her walker is a sight always in my mind. I know one day when I don't check in to hear her latest medical issue, I'll find her dead like I found our mom. All in my lap. And she'll be wondering to the end how could this have happened to her. Other sister 41 married to a bi polar mess. His messed up family is her world. This is my lot. Neither of them care about me. I'm just the one to call when he blows the rent money on drugs, or when I get the call saying she's broken her pelvis falling down again. Don't forget to take a new pack of cigs to the hospital! I feel so lonely and feel I have no control over the mess my family is. It's not normal, and it will never change.

    Thoughts on Loneliness - - Feb 23rd 2010

    Yes, I think the deep feelings of loneliness come not always because we have no one to be around but rather because the relationships with them are rather shallow.  I have found that I can be in a room filled with people and still experience feelings of loneliness.  I want and need to share my thoughts, feelings, disappointments, dreams, etc. with someone who is also sharing himself/herself with me.  It is in this way, I believe, that those lonely feelings can truly be eliminated.  At any rate, it does help to just simply be in the presence of others.  I don't know if what I've written here will be helpful to anyone, but you know, I feel better just by having shared this with you.  Thank you.

    Lost w/o my man - - Dec 23rd 2009

    Somedays i cry for hours at a time: as well I should. I have a 4 month old son, no employment prospects, living off my family my baby's daddy is unknown and I just made parole. I 've lost the only man I love-- he's gone back to his ex-girlfriend--and this is after I stood by him throughout his ordeal. I think about how much better everyone would be if I'd just die, but I was raised Pentecostal and don't want to awaken in hell.

     

    So here I am with a family, no spouse not even a lover at Christmas and I'm a 30 year old woman, tired of livin' tired of wakin' up to an empty bed.

    2009 - The One You Know to Reject when you meet me - Aug 11th 2009

    I am 18 years old.. never had a friend.. never had a date.. got did anything "sexual" with another person.. And now, after graduating from High School, I cannot find a job, although I'm searching quite persistently. Therefore, social failure has extended, quite predictably, to career failure, resulting in financial failure to me, which, in turn, disqualifies any reason for a woman to fornicate or have sexual relations of any kind with me, because I am, inevitably, poor (socially and financially speaking).

    During my pathetic little years of existence, I have thought such irrational things as:

    1- All the people of the world have been told by God to socially reject me and I am nothing more than a sick experiment being conducted by a malevolent "God".

    2- I am God, therefore I am different from the rest of humanity. If I wasn't God, then how could I predict my future so damned well?

    3- Obviously, I have some kind of flaw that only others see, and I cannot seem to remedy that flaw because it is... impossible.

    But, in the midst of all those thoughts, I am finally realizing that life has no point and, given that I am rationalizing my way OUT of this situation, the world's social campaign against me has failed. So *that* means... my meaningless existence can end at ANY time and... I wouldn't care, because I'm served my purpose: To go through adolescence with nothing and vainly hope during that time that my adulthood would somehow be different.

    My life is complete now. I have no point in continuing. Just wanted to give my message to others who might search for somebody worse off than they are: You found him.. me. :)

    Volunteering & religious groups didn't work for me - Jay - Feb 28th 2009

    When I volunteered, I found that I was 10-20 years younger than the other volunteers (I am in my 50s).  I tried to get involved at my church, even team-teaching a weekly evening class with our pastor (for almost a year this class met).  When my son was hospitalized for brain surgery (his 6th or 7th surgery) no one from the class even checked on me.  So much for community.  I found that church was better suited to couples and families, but not middle-aged single women.    I also find that as a quiet, artistic person it is harder for me to jump into social events - I am not withdrawn or terribly shy, but I am introverted (in the Meyers Briggs sense of the word).  Where do people like me go to become involved and to meet new people?

    I agree to some extent - Ada - Jan 29th 2009

    My life has been full and pretty busy most of my life.  I am an only child and right now in my late 50's is when I feel the lonelines.  I have lots of nice friends and I used to volunteer but now I find my life is busy with my husband who is on dialysis 3 x a week.  I have made friends with other dialysis wives.  I get real feelings of loneliness at xmas the most.  My mom whom I was very close to died and my dad is aging and sick and now with my husband's failing health I really feel overwhelmed somedays.  But I guess I count my blessings because I have travelled extensively and had a wonderful career. 

    You have to get involved in things like take courses or join coffee clubs.  There must be something out there for you.  I find having penpals on the internet helps too. 

    Dealing with loneliness - - Jan 15th 2009

    I am in the process of trying to cope/deal with my own feelings of loneliness. But I do think that from what I have read so far, noone really knows what to do, not really.  When I am lonely, I am in the grips of the most intense feelings of sadness and despair and these feelings are untouchable by any measure of reason. It is this grip that I can’t undo, can’t release and which makes this so unbearable and makes me think about ending my life.

    People who are lonely want a deeper connection to the world, to interact on a more personal level. Many, even most, people don’t seem capable or interested, While it can’t hurt to get out more, I think it is unsatisfying on that interpersonal level, because of the way the world is, not because I am suffering from loneliness. While the methods a lonely person might engage in to achieve connection to others can be absolutely misguided, and need work to change, the underlying “need” is actually quite healthy and understandable. But needy and lonely people in this society get a very bad rap. I have always liked the quote from the  movie Defending Your Life”, What if loneliness and desperation made us more attractive?

    If I could interact intelligently with other people who have truly grappled with the issue at a deeper level I think that would be one thing that could help relieve the isolation and maybe work on some possible solutions.

    Volunteering and religous group have not helped - - Nov 9th 2008

    My personal experience has not shown that volunteering or being involved in religous groups helps.  There has to be some other answer... some way to find community.  Perhaps it is intense work that has prevented your solutions from working.  Religion and volunteering require an out pouring of time.  Religon especially seems to be a celebration of family, and when you have none it is odd.

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