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June 22, 2015

Do you feel lonely? You are not alone

Scott Stockdale

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Researchers have identified loneliness and social isolation with many health issues, cardiac issues, mental health problems and mortality.

On a recent edition of The Agenda, on TV Ontario, with Steve Paikin, Barbara Barbosa Neves, a sociologist and at the University of Toronto (U of T) and Associate Director of the Technology for ageing gracefully lab, at the University of Toronto, said loneliness is a subjective feeling of not belonging, of lacking companionship, which is often a result of lack of social connectedness.

“Social connectedness means that we have meaningful social relations, relationships that bring us joy and support and satisfaction.”

Judith Shuleivitz author of “The Lethality of Loneliness” said breakthroughs in genetics and immunology have made it possible for us to measure with great precision the impact of loneliness on long-term health and psychological health and even on whether one dies younger.

“For the past half century we've been aware of the importance of love and attachment in the development of the baby and the child, but what's new and newsworthy is that loneliness even when you're an adult can actually have a direct impact on your physical health.”

Moreover, researchers are actually able to detect the impact of loneliness on one's physical health, according to Louise Hawkley, senior research scientist with the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago.

“Older lonely people had higher blood pressure and their blood pressure increased more rapidly over a four- year follow-up period.

Many researchers have also detected sleep differences. It's not how much we sleep, but how well we sleep: Lonely people seem to have more interruptions; they wake up feeling less rested, less able to handles the stresses of the day. They're less able to handle infections and more prone to hyper-inflammation in the body, which leads to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and mortality,”

Susan Pinker, psychologist and author of The Village Effect: How Face to Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier, said a research study indicates that social contact is a significant reason why in Sardinia  - the second largest island in the Mediterranean village life – there are ten times as many centenarians as in the US or mainland Europe.

“People are seldom alone. The priest, the shopkeeper, the baker are always there. It's very different from the way we age here. We do know that 25 per cent of the variance is accounted for by generic factors, but 75 per cent is really social factors. These people are always included; they're respected. Even introverts need social contact; they just need to control it more.”

Dr. Barbosa Neves, said changes in family structures as we age are a significant reason why people are becoming increasingly lonely.

“We've moved from extended families to more nuclear families. Life expectancy continues to increase. Older adults will exceed the number of children for the first time in 2047. Retirement, frailty, loss of mobility, widowhood, loss of relatives and friends, all contribute to loneliness, as well as the fact we are having fewer children.”

Dr. Hawkley indicated that it's not just the close proximity to others that alleviates the problems of loneliness, but the ethos of the people we're surrounded by.

“We've been looking at neighbourhoods as to how dangerous they are. If you live in a neighbourhood with a high crime rate, people tend to become less trusting, not only of their neighbours but people in general. If you're less trusting, you're less likely to go out: more likely to be confined to your house. That's going to limit social interactions and the social interactions you do have are less trusting. Poor quality interactions contribute to loneliness.”

It's not surprising that many people who don't have meaningful social relationships in today's society are turning to the internet to fill the void.

While this may help alleviate feelings of loneliness to a point, most of the experts on the panel agreed that internet friends can't take the place of face-to-face relationships. These online relationships are being characterized as “Facebook Depression”.

Ms. Pinker said “Facebook Depression” is a term used for people who often look at their online network the way they used to look at television for company when feeling lonely.

“They will often communicate more with strangers than go out and seek people in person. That's 'Facebook Depression'.”

She added that more isolated groups like newly arrived students from China are more likely to experience “Facebook Depression”.

“The more they're online, the less they make friends offline; and the lonelier they are. It doesn't do anything for how they feel.”

Although Dr. Hawkley said virtual connection is like a low calorie version of an in person interaction and thus it lacks the depth and lasting power of face-to-face interaction, she doesn't feel we run the risk of having technology overtake us.

“I think the motivation to connect socially is a biological need that is built into us. We're not going to lose that in the face of technology.”

However, Ms. Shuleivitz said these virtual connections have taken over our social lives.

“It’s actually addictive, I think it's starting to sap our manners and our ability to look each other in the eye and interact.”

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