(Vox) Loneliness actually hurts us on a cellular level
A scientist explains how the pain of loneliness makes us sick.
“Humans are social animals” is a phrase often repeated by psychologists to sum up why we’ve been such a successful species. Our ability to live, work, and cooperate in groups is the key to our survival.
But it comes with a tradeoff. Companionship is an asset for human survival, but its mirror twin, isolation, can be toxic.
Loneliness is associated with higher blood pressure and heart disease — it literally breaks our hearts. A 2015 meta-review of 70 studies showed that loneliness increases the risk of your chance of dying by 26 percent. (Compare that to depression and anxiety, which is associated with a comparable 21 percent increase in mortality.)
Now researchers are trying to understand exactly how loneliness causes disease at the cellular level. And they’re finding that loneliness is far more than a psychological pain — it’s a biological wound that wreaks havoc on our cells.
“Social isolation is far and away the strongest social risk factor out there,” Steve Cole, a genetics researcher at the University of California Los Angeles, tells me. Or, as John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist who frequently collaborates with Cole on loneliness studies, has said, “The level of toxicity from loneliness is stunning.”
I called Cole to learn how loneliness can make us sick — and what that means for the 40 percent of people age 65 and older who report being lonely at times. I was also thinking about this GIF of how America will age until 2050. It’s a wave of increasing old age, but it may also represent a soul-crushing wave of loneliness as baby boomers age into their 70s.