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How Chronic Loneliness Harms Your Health

How Chronic Loneliness Harms Your Health

By Sheryl Kraft

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There's been a lot in the media lately about the growing epidemic of loneliness and how it can hurt your health. According to AARP, loneliness is a health risk affecting 800,000 older Americans and is a "significant predictor of poor health."

Maybe you live or work alone, or you simply enjoy being alone. Maybe you even prefer being alone to the company of others. Is that a reason to worry?

Not really. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I myself am alone a lot. Part of the reason is that I work from home. I've gotten used to being alone. I'm rarely lonely, but when I am, I make sure to reach out to friends.

But, there's a big difference between being alone and feeling lonely. And that's an important distinction.

Being alone? It's harmless. It can even be rewarding. But feeling the pain of loneliness is another story. It can harm your health and get in the way of aging well. Learn more about the 7 Top Tips for Healthy Aging.

And, as we age, the odds of being lonely increase. We grow apart from our friends. Some friends move away and others die. And it can be more difficult to make new connections. Sometimes it's an age thing (we get more discerning as we get older and wiser); sometimes it's a matter of circumstance. Playdates and work relationships are in shorter supply and may become a thing of the past.

Loneliness is a serious health risk. Why else would the United Kingdom—a country suffering an epidemic of loneliness—have a newly appointed minister of loneliness?

Managing stress and staying on top of our health with exercising and eating right are great ways to age well. But in addition to that, we need the power of social connection. "We must cultivate our emotional well-being," said former surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy, MD, at a recent AARP/Forbes event, Disrupt Aging.

What does that mean? We're built to be interdependent, and it makes sense for us to focus on how to build relationships, which are essential to our health and well-being. "People who are lonely have shorter lives," Murthy said.

Frightening Fact: Researchers report that loneliness can be more harmful than obesity or smoking.

How it is possible that loneliness poses such a health risk?

It can raise your cortisol levels.

Loneliness can cause stress. And stress, in turn, puts your adrenal glands to work to churn out the hormone cortisol, which is essential during a fight-or-flight situation but not good on a long-term basis. Overexposure to cortisol, the stress hormone, puts your health at risk: heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, headaches, digestive problems, anxiety, problems with memory and concentration and weight gain are just some of the problems you could face.

It can increase inflammation.

Research shows that prolonged psychological stress can hamper the immune system's ability to regulate inflammation. This, in turn, can lead to the development and progression of illnesses and diseases that are promoted by inflammation, like asthma, colds and cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases.

It may make you eat poorly or overeat.

It can be tempting (or just plain easier) to plop down in front of the TV or sit with a book and down some popcorn and ice cream for dinner and call it a night—and you're more likely to eat like this when you're alone. This is a double whammy: Distracted eating leads you to eat more, plus you're likely eating less-healthy foods when you're by yourself. On the other hand, when you're with another person it's more probable that you'll cook together or go out for a decent meal and make the meal more of a focus than if you were eating alone.

It can raise your risk of Alzheimer's disease.

A study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry found that feeling isolated and lonely could be considered a major risk factor for Alzheimer's disease. Other research points to the overall health advantages of a rich social network and its potentially protective effect on premature death from heart disease and stroke.

There are many strategies to deal with loneliness. Volunteering, walking or biking with a friend, taking an exercise class, joining a group, taking up a hobby or contacting old friends are just a few ways. You probably know them already—they're pretty obvious. And, yes, I know that they're easier said than done.

But knowing that social connectedness can offer a big health boost might give you the just motivation you need to reach out. Widening our social circles not only gives us new opportunities, it gives us opportunities for better health.

This post originally appeared on mysocalledmidlife.net.

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