(NaturalNews) Feeling lonely disrupts the immune system and may lead to many of the same health problems as chronic stress, according to a pair of studies conducted by researchers from Ohio State University and presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in New Orleans.
"It is clear from previous research that poor-quality relationships are linked to a number of health problems, including premature mortality and all sorts of other very serious health conditions. And people who are lonely clearly feel like they are in poor-quality relationships," researcher Lisa Jaremka said.
The first study was conducted on 200 breast cancer survivors who had completed their treatment within two months and three years before the start of the study. The average participant's age was 51. All participants had their loneliness assessed by a questionnaire on perception of isolation and loneliness called the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Their blood was also tested for levels of antibodies against two separate varieties of herpes virus: cytomegalovirus and Epstein-Barr.
A majority of U.S. adults are infected with both herpes viruses, which have the ability to go dormant in the body and reemerge if the immune system ever becomes compromised. Therefore, levels of herpes antibodies in the blood are considered a reliable marker of immune stress.
The researchers found that participants who ranked higher on the loneliness test also had higher levels of cytomegalovirus antibodies, indicating lowered immune function. They also reported higher levels of pain, depression and fatigue.
Levels of Epstein-Barr antibodies were not affected by loneliness. The researchers speculated that no effect might have been seen because the Epstein-Barr virus tends to reactivate more later in life, and many of the participants were older in age.
The findings suggest that like stress, loneliness may also cause pressure on the immune system.
"Loneliness has been thought of in many ways as a chronic stressor," Jaremka said, "a socially painful situation that can last for quite a long time."
Loneliness boosts inflammation
The second study was conducted on 144 of the women from the first study, plus 134 additional adults, all of whom were both middle-aged and overweight, and who had no major health problems. Researchers collected blood from participants just before requiring them to perform two stressful tasks: solving a mental math problem and also giving an impromptu, five-minute speech while being videotaped in front of three panelists. The participants were then given lipopolysaccharide, a bacterial chemical, in order to stimulate an immune response. The researchers found that lonelier people had significantly higher levels of at least two separate inflammation markers.
Inflammation is a healthy part of the immune response, and therefore a sign of immune stress. Chronic inflammation is associated with a number of serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease, dementia, Type II diabetes, arthritis, and many of the symptoms of aging.
Jaremka noted that the findings highlight the importance of maintaining strong social ties.
"It's also important to remember the flip side, which is that people who feel very socially connected are experiencing more positive outcomes," she said.