Loneliness can increase risk of premature death in older age

Lonely people are more likely to contract a disease and die from the disease because their immune system is compromised.

the scientists analyzed the level of gene in leukocytes – the cells within the immune system which keeps the body from bacterial and viral invasions.

Research reveals that lonely people have lower white blood cells in their bodies. But they have also found that the link between loneliness and gene expression is reciprocal.

More specifically, the study authors, led by John T. Cacioppo, PhD, a loneliness expert at the University of Chicago, found that loneliness may lead to “fight-or-flight stress signaling”, which might weaken the immune system.

Loneliness is hard to measure, so Dr. Cacioppo and colleagues studied humans and rhesus macaques in “perceived social isolation”.

In another experiment that was part of the same study, the researchers found the same pro-inflammation of genetic expression among lonely macaque monkeys, related to the increase of immature cells called monocytes. Other studies showed that the increased production of immature monocytes was amplifying the high inflammation/low antiviral effect in the pool of white blood cells.

Also, certain danger signals are activated in the brain when an individual suffers prolonged isolation, and this alters the ability of his body to produce white blood cells; and then the resultant change in levels of moncyte causes health risks already associated with loneliness. The fact has been known for decades but the exact reason has never been identified. Monkeys who were continually put into slightly stressful situations such as new and unfamiliar cage-mates showed increased levels of monocytes.

“It is a monotonic function – the lonelier one is and the longer one is lonely, the greater the negative effects”, said psychologist John Cacioppo.

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