5 shocking facts science says about loneliness and its side effects on health

Loneliness doesn't just have to do with a person's mental health. Its side effects can invariably emerge in one's physical health too. Here's what latest research says.
Know the shocking side effects of loneliness. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
Radhika Bhirani Updated: 23 Oct 2023, 11:39 am IST
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Loneliness can be a giant evil. Those who experience it, may not even beg to disagree. The Oxford dictionary defines ‘loneliness’ as ‘sadness because one has no friends or company’. The state, feeling or perception of isolation may be self-induced for some, as well as due to people around them. Whatever the case may be, loneliness can be psychologically, physically and sociologically debilitating for a person’s health. Over the years, several research studies have been conducted to understand the side effects of loneliness. Let us take a look at some of these, and look at ways to deal with loneliness.

1. Loneliness can speed up ageing process more than smoking, says study

Did you know feeling unhappy, depressed or lonely can speed up the pace of ageing even more than smoking or some diseases? As per a research article in the Aging-US journal, researchers deduced that humans don’t just age on the basis of physical factors alone. The speed with which they may age also depends on their mental state and social status.

“We demonstrate that psychological factors, such as feeling unhappy or being lonely, add up to 1.65 years to one’s biological age,” write the researchers from Deep Longevity, Stanford University and The Chinese University of Hong Kong, among others.

This study deduced that companionship and a psychologically pleasant environment are important for a healthy and long life.

loneliness in old age
Don’t let the elders at home feel isolated. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

2. Loneliness can double the risk of Type 2 diabetes

Here’s another study which is an alarm for you to deal with with loneliness. Clearly, such a feeling doesn’t just hamper mental health, but physical health too. As it happens, the two are symbiotic in nature.

It may seem surprising to you, but a new study published in Diabetologia, a journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, indicates that feelings of loneliness may be linked to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The study explains that loneliness can lead to chronic and sometimes a prolonged state of distress. These may trigger the body’s physiological stress response. That is why it’s important to know how to deal with loneliness.

“While the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, this response is believed to play a central role in the development of type 2 diabetes through mechanisms such as temporary insulin resistance brought on by elevated levels of cortisol. Not just this, it may also lead to changes in how eating behaviour is regulated by the brain. Due to this, a lonely person may display an increased appetite for carbohydrates, leading to elevated blood sugar levels.

loneliness and diabetes
Avoid emotional eating. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

3. Covid-19 pandemic increased loneliness

According to a research article published in PLOS One, a Public Library of Science journal, emotional loneliness increased over time due to the Covid-19 pandemic, while social loneliness remained stable. Of the 737 participants aged between 18-81 years, some of the socially lonely individuals were also susceptible to developing emotional loneliness over time.

These were driven by forced social distancing, lockdown and work-from-home environments. Being cut off from people-to-people and face-to-face interactions left many people struggling, especially the older people with loneliness.

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4. Loneliness can increase risk of heart problems

We know it, don’t we? Loneliness isn’t good for the heart. Neither emotionally, nor physically. A 2016 study published online in the British Medical Journal indicates that poor social relationships were associated with a 29 percent increase in risk of incident Congenital Heart Defects and a 32 percent increase in risk of stroke among the sample size.

Also read: Don’t glorify your tanhai because here’s what loneliness can do to your mental health

mental health and heart health
Loneliness and heart health may be linked. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

5. Loneliness is associated with cognitive decline

A study cited by the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry looked into a likely link between loneliness or social isolation and cognitive decline. After a 3-year follow-up period. It turned out that they are indeed connected. Higher levels of loneliness and social isolation were connected with decreased cognitive functions in participants.

Therefore, the study suggested the interventions, including improved social participation and upkeep of emotionally supportive relationships, to prevent the risk of cognitive decline.

How to deal with loneliness?

Well, now you have a fair idea of just how it impacts some aspects of your overall health. So, you should do what’s within your power to overcome the feeling.

Try to step out more often, make new connections if old connections seem lost or broken. Break away from the vicious circle of social media and the virtual world which can leave you isolated from reality. Indulge in hobbies or activities you like because even if it may be ‘me time’, it will make you feel happy. Practice gratitude and mindfulness to feel more optimistic about life, and you will reduce your feelings of loneliness.


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About the Author

Radhika Bhirani is a journalist with close to 15 years of experience in the Indian media industry. After writing extensively on health, lifestyle and entertainment, she leads the English content team at Health Shots. She has a special interest in writing on mental health and wellness. ...Read More

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