The Loneliness and Chronic Disease Cycle
Even before the pandemic, there was an epidemic of loneliness in the US and globally. In 2018, a Kaiser Family Foundation study reported that ~60 million Americans felt lonely. During the pandemic, according to a Harvard study, this number has increased to 36%. In their study, 36% of respondents reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time”. This equates to almost 100 million Americans. This does not even consider the global impact of loneliness.
While we may be aware of the psychological effects of loneliness, loneliness can also have physiologic effects which worsen chronic disease.
What is loneliness?
Researchers define loneliness as the “unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relationships is deficient either qualitatively or quantitatively.” The qualitative aspect means a lack of close or deep relationships. A person may have interactions with others, but they are superficial and not close. The quantitative aspect means that a person may not have many personal interactions at all, either superficial or deep.
Loneliness and Chronic Illness
Loneliness is associated with increase of psychiatric disorders such as depression. It can also have negative effects on a person’s physiologic health.
The negative impact of loneliness is the same as smoking 15 cigarettes per day!
Some effects on the body are:
- Worsening hypertension (increase in blood pressure)
- Increased flight or flight response (increased norepinephrine), which can disrupt sleep and increase risk of long-term inflammation
- Increased stress hormones (increase in cortisol)
- Increase risk of stroke
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Higher mortality rate
Furthermore, according to the CDC, social isolation has been associated with increasing a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a similar risk as associated with smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
At the same time, chronic illness can worsen loneliness. Becoming more debilitated or having decreased mobility due to chronic conditions can make social activities difficult.
Fighting loneliness by encouraging human connections can help to stop this cycle. At the same time, the improvement of chronic conditions can enable people to be healthy enough to seek out more social interactions.
Venja Health is building a platform to encourage people to be more mindful of their health and to connect people over shared experiences of their conditions, thereby helping to stop this cycle of chronic disease and loneliness on both fronts!
1. DiJiulio B et al. Loneliness and Social Isolation in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan: An International Survey. Aug. 30, 2018.
2. Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It
3. Bekhet, A.K. & Zauszniewski, J.A. (2008). Loneliness: a concept analysis. Nursing Forum, 43(4): 207-213. 4. Kool, M.B. & Geenen, R. (2011). Loneliness in patients with rheumatic diseases: the significance of invalidation and lack of social support. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 146(1-2): 229-241. 5. The Cost of Loneliness Project. https://www.thecostofloneliness.org/ 6. https://medium.com/the-ascent/the-crushing-cost-of-loneliness-on-society-b6c4121a0efa 7. CDC, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html#:~:text=Health%20Risks%20of%20Loneliness&text=Social%20isolation%20significantly%20increased%20a,%2C%20obesity%2C%20and%20physical%20inactivity.&text=1-,Social%20isolation%20was%20associated%20with%20about%20a,percent%20increased%20risk%20of%20dementia. 8. https://journals.lww.com/nursing/Fulltext/2020/12000/Managing_loneliness_and_chronic_illness_in_older.8.aspx#:~:text=In%20older%20adults%2C%20chronic%20illness,experience%20cognitive%20decline%20and%20dementia.