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The age of loneliness

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia () - May 10, 2012 - 12:00am

Looking for an anti-aging solution that is not in a bottle? Try not being lonely.

We have known for a while now that if you were lonely, chances are you are less healthy than the next fellow with all other things being equal. It is no longer a secret to science that there is a definite link between loneliness/depression and human health and life span. In the last decade or so, research has been piling up on the effects of loneliness and depression on various illnesses affecting the heart, blood pressure and our immune system. So how much worse could it get for lonely people? According to a recent study, loneliness can make you grow old faster.

The study came out last month and the results seem to show that loneliness does not only make you sick, it also makes you grow older faster than your real age in years. It came out last March in the journal Psychology and Aging and was entitled “Loneliness accentuates age differences in cardiovascular responses to social evaluative threat” by Cornell University researchers Anthony Ong, Jeremy Rothstein, and Bert Uchino.

When researchers say “loneliness,” they mean “perceived isolation from others” making the lonely person feel that her relationships as they are do not fill her social needs. It is, of course, not the same as being alone. People who live alone need not be lonely if they maintain relationships that make them feel connected. 

In the study, two groups were asked to rate their “loneliness” and then subjected to “stressors” in the form of mental math and verbal presentations. After the stressors, their blood pressures were taken. One group had young adults aged 18 to 30 years old while the other, 65-80 years old. The scientists saw that the hearts of the lonely people in the young adults group showed the levels of stresses similar to those of the NON-lonely older adults. Aging has been associated with higher blood pressure baselines, and thus increased stress to the heart so much so that we consider this condition as part of the normal aging process. That is why to see a lonely heart in a young person behave like that of an older person who is not lonely could most likely mean that loneliness ages you.

It has also been known that when you stress out an older heart, it takes a longer time to recover than a young heart and this was again confirmed by the same study. This means that to be old and lonely should spell a double alert for you and for the people around you.

But why did we evolve to feel loneliness in the first place? How could such feelings of emptiness be useful to survival? Scientists think that when you feel lonely, you will feel an urgency to get rid of that inner void by connecting with others. Humans are notoriously social in nature and we have only survived because we are wired to connect with others whether for work or play. If we never felt lonely, we would not be impelled to relate with others, which, as history has shown, enabled us not only to survive but also to flourish as a species.

I do not think it is easy for people to admit to themselves and even more, to others that they are lonely. It is complicated by the fact that your loneliness is shaped, not as much by how other people in your life value your presence in their lives as by your own perception that you are seemingly disconnected. If it is perception, then it is in your head, guided by both biology and your environment. As such, any anti-loneliness, and therefore anti-aging solution, would depend both on your own struggle to get out of the emotional bottle you are corked in and on the people who nurture your life.  

And if laughter is the natural symbol we pick for the un-lonely life, then it could again be told as it has been over and over again, in science and literature: He who laughs, lasts.

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For comments, e-mail dererumnaturastar@hotmail.com.

AGING ANTHONY ONG BERT UCHINO CORNELL UNIVERSITY FEEL HEART JEREMY ROTHSTEIN LONELINESS LONELY PEOPLE PSYCHOLOGY AND AGING
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