How many friends do you have?

I don't mean Facebook friends, or any other contacts on social media. How many real friends do you have--people that you enjoy spending time with, and they enjoy spending time with you? People that you feel a real connection with, that you can talk to about...anything?

These are questions worth asking. Because the feeling that you severely lack close connections, i.e., the desperate pain of loneliness, just may be killing you.

Journalist Katie Hafner reported on the epidemic of loneliness in a recent article in The New York Times. "Researchers have found mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline," writes Hafner. "As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity."

Some highlights from the report:

  • Neuroscientists at M.I.T recently identified a region of the brain they believe "generates feelings of loneliness." This region is often linked to depression.
  • The research of John T. Cacioppo, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and director of the university's Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, shows that "chronic loneliness is associated with increased levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone, as well as higher vascular resistance, which can raise blood pressure and decrease blood flow to vital organs."
  • Professor Cacioppo's research also demonstrates that when loneliness triggers danger signals in the brain, these signals can affect white blood cell production--possibly impairing the immune system's ability to fight infection.
  • In one recent study of over 1,500 participants, "43 percent reported feelings of loneliness, and these individuals had significantly higher rates of declining mobility, difficulty in performing routine daily activities, and death during six years of follow-up."

Different Generations, Same Problem

Also notable: Loneliness doesn't discriminate.

Although Hafner's article focused on the effects of loneliness on older generations, others have remarked on how modern technology and social media has affected today's youth.

"While loneliness is certainly a big problem among the elderly, the numbers may pale in comparison to the number of youth and adults that suffer the same malady from social isolation--due to technology mediation via social media and simply 'feeling' alone in a crowd as people 'screen skate' though their days," said Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski, a professor at Stony Brook University.

"My college students report that despite 'being around others,' they often feel separate as more and more of their 'friends' talk to screens instead of each other...Loneliness is not just a problem for the aged, but a problem for us all in the age of digital everything."

What to Do

So what can you do if you're experiencing loneliness?

The Times article shared a number of charities in the U.S. and UK that are attempting to combat loneliness. For example, The Silver Line helpline in England and The Friendship Line in the U.S. are 24-hour numbers (toll-free for domestic calls) that fill the most basic need for contact.

Other initiatives aim to bring people together in a familiar environment. The "Men's Shed" (with over 300 locations in England, Scotland and Ireland), offers a woodworking shop described as "places of skill-sharing and informal learning, of individual pursuits and community projects, of purpose, achievement and social interaction."

In addition, if you're feeling lonely, resist the urge to isolate yourself. If possible, find opportunities for volunteer work. Seek out others who may be lonely as well, or those that you might not first be drawn to.

And if you see someone else who you think may be lonely, don't hesitate to reach out to them.

You just might be saving their life.

Published on: Sep 7, 2016
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