The dangers of social isolation have long been known but its effects on the body have not been well understood, the researchers said in the work published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences/PNAS.
The research team had previously identified a link between solitude and both a heightened expression of genes involved in inflammation and a diminution in the activity of other genes that play a role in the body’s antiviral responses. The result is a weakened immune systems that makes a person who lives alone more vulnerable to illness.
In a life-threatening situation, norepinephrine cascades through the body and starts shutting down immune functions like viral defense, while ramping up the production of white blood cells called monocytes. “It’s this surge in these pro-inflammatory white blood cells that are highly adapted to defend against wounds, but at the expense of our defenses against viral diseases that come from close social contact with other people,”says Steve Cole, a genomics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, and lead author on the study.
Researchers are hoping to use the results of this study to learn more about the connection between loneliness and poor health outcomes. They also hope to better understand why people who feel lonely and socially isolated have a higher risk of illness, disease and premature death.
We’d love to hear what you think, especially since we are now at a time of year when people can feel particularly vulnerable to loneliness.