In music and literature, loneliness often takes center stage. From Emma Donoghue's Room to Charlotte Bronte's depiction of Jane Eyre in her eponymous novel, from Akon's smash hit "Lonely" and almost every song by The Smiths, loneliness is consistently depicted in popular culture. But some of the unexpected ways loneliness affects your health? Unsurprisingly (given that they're unexpected), they're less well-known — but we also owe it to ourselves to learn about them.
A 2015 study led by University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo suggested that the reason humans are pricked by feelings of loneliness even today is rooted in evolutionary biology. It all goes back to when we used to need protection from harmful predators, because of course, being in a social group provided this protection. As The Huffington Post reported, "Like hunger and pain, loneliness may be part of a biological 'warning system' to enhance our chances of survival and reproduction." The research suggested that loneliness encourages humans and animals to establish connections with others nearby who might be able to protect provide key survival benefits. “One of the benefits of sociality is mutual protection and assistance, and being isolated or on the social perimeter can represent a dangerous circumstance,” the researchers concluded.
But what's so wrong with existing in isolation anyway? You might think that if you have access to food, water, and sleep, then reduced social interactions may not have that profound an effect on your wellbeing. Additionally it's worth noting that being lonely and being alone aren't the same thing: As many introverts can attest, having a lot of alone time doesn't necessarily mean you're lonely; it's also possible to feel lonely even when you're not alone. But it turns out that there are several unexpected ways loneliness can actually wreak havoc on your mental and physical health:
1Loneliness Can Raise Your Risk Of Heart Disease
The American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference recently found that there is a direct correlation between loneliness and heart disease — if you're a black woman. In fact, black women who are at risk for heart disease are twice as likely to report feelings of loneliness compared to white women. According to Hello Beautiful, Karen Saban, R.N., Ph.D., associate professor and associate dean for research at Loyola University Chicago Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing, explained,“African-American women at risk for cardiovascular disease have unique predictors of loneliness — financial stress and subjective social status — as compared to non-Hispanic white women." Similarly scientists at the University of York found that people with fewer social ties had a 29 percent higher risk of having heart disease.
2Loners Are Often More Depressed
The link between loneliness and depression has been written about with a great deal of frequency. Studies have found that being lonely can be the onset to depression and that lonely people are are more stressed, hostile, unhappy and lack of confidence.
3Lonely People Sleep Less
People who are lonely actually clock up less restorative sleep than those with strong social bonds. Lonely people are light sleepers, tend to toss and turn more, and feel more tired in the mornings — which of course, can be hazardous to psychological and physical wellbeing.
4Mortality Rates Can Increase If You're Lonely
Loneliness can increase a person’s risk of mortality by 26 percent, as found by a study from University College London. Scientists followed 6,500 elderly British people over 52 from 2004 until 2012 and discovered that the most isolated were more likely to die than the participants who maintained their social ties. These findings came even after scientists controlled for factors such as age and illness.
5Your Social Anxiety Can Get Worse
A 2015 study by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, found that lonely people analyze social interactions better, but actually choke under social pressure and experience worse social anxiety. Study authors said: "Lonely individuals may decode social cues well but have difficulty putting such skills to use precisely when they need them--in social situations.
6Loneliness Is As Bad For You As Other Clinical Health Conditions
One loneliness study conducted back in 2010 analyzed 148 previous studies of mortality in humans to see if loneliness had an impact. They found that the fewer social interactions a person had, the more chance they had of dying prematurely (not unlike what was shown in that University College London study we just looked at). Additionally, they found that being lonely for a significant period of time is as bad for you as a smoking and other clinical health problems.
7There's A Link Between Loneliness And Dementia
A 2012 study from Holland found a shocking link between being alone and developing dementia. The research looked at elderly people and found that the lonely ones were 64 percent more likely to develop dementia than the others with a solid network of friends and family. More research presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Washington in 2015 backed this up; they found that mental faculties decline at a quicker rate if you're lonely.
Again, none of this means that if you like your alone time, your health will suffer. But if you do start to feel lonely, it can help to reach out to friends or loved ones, or even just go take a walk and exist in the world for a bit. And of course don't hesitate to get in touch with a mental health professional if you need to; therapy can do a world of good. You, your health, and your happiness are so, so worth it.