(NaturalNews) Chronic loneliness and social isolation are associated with drastic changes in the expression of genes involved in regulating the immune system, suggests the results of a recent study conducted by researchers at University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA).
Over four years, scientists measured the white blood cell-related gene expression of a group of 14 individuals who had scored their sense of loneliness using a standard psychological questionnaire. Results revealed that more than 200 genes were activated either much more or much less in those who were scored chronically lonely versus those who were not, including genes regulating response to viruses, and cell growth.
However, the differences were most marked in genes related to the over-expression of inflammation. Participants in the 'lonely' group expressed genes related to the heart disease risk factor C-Reactive Protein at levels twice as high as those in the 'non-lonely' group, and levels of the inflammation-creating NFkB gene at levels more than three times in excess of their counterparts.
The results demonstrated that "human genomic function is indeed sensitive to social environmental conditions", wrote lead author Professor Steven W. Cole in the journal Gene Biology.
Feelings of isolation had been linked to poor health outcomes in a number of previous studies, including research associating loneliness with increased cancer and heart disease-related risk factors, as well as increased 'all-cause mortality' (dying earlier from any cause) but this was the first to find a clear genomic difference in those experiencing such feelings of disassociation.
Remarkably, the findings occurred despite the study participants in both the 'lonely' and 'non-lonely' groups having similar sized social networks, suggesting that there was a large perceptual factor involved in the findings which, in turn, influenced the physiology of the experiencers through neuroendocrinological (nerve and hormone related) pathways.
According to Professor Cole, "individuals who experienced themselves as chronically isolated from others have an increased risk of several inflammation related diseases" [emphasis added].
The researchers believe that the experience of social isolation could represent a "distinct risk factor" for declining health, particularly that related to the immune system, one which demands further exploration.
About the author
Michael Jolliffe is a freelance writer based in Oxford, UK.
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