It may seem astonishing, but a recent scientific research suggests that social isolation, in the long term, is as damaging as a 15-a-day cigarette habit or being an alcoholic. RALIAT AHMED writes.
Loneliness is as bad for the health as smoking, says a recent research.
While common definitions of loneliness describe it as a state of solitude or being alone, loneliness is actually a state of mind which causes people to feel empty, alone and unwanted. People who find themselves in this situation are lonely and often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people.
The research also found that those with a poor social network are at increased risk of high blood pressure, which makes the genes, the body needs to fight off serious viral infection less active. Loneliness may also cause cancer or heart disease.
Psychologists explain that feeling alone and unloved can also make it difficult to sleep and even increase the risk of dementia.
There is also a growing evidence that when the need for social relationships is not met, the system falls apart mentally and even physically. Loneliness affects the brain and the body. Some effects work subtly, through the exposure of multiple body systems to excess amounts of stress hormones. Yet the effects are distinct enough to be measured over time, so that unmet social needs take a serious toll on health, eroding the arteries, causing high blood pressure, and even weaken learning and memory.
A psychologist, Ms Pauline Orji, explains: “When you are lonely and you don’t have people around to share your emotions with, it could bring about the emotional discomfort or distress known as loneliness”.
Orji notes, “Feeling of loneliness begins with an awareness of a deficiency of relationships. This cognitive awareness plays through our brain with an emotional role which makes us sad, empty, a longing for contact, isolation and deprivation. All these feelings tear away at our emotional well-being”.
According to Orji, people are lonely for different reasons. It could be as a result of living alone, a lack of close family ties, reduced connections with their culture of origin or an inability to actively participate in the local community activities.
Whichever way, when this occurs in combination with physical disability, demoralisation and depression cannot be ruled out, she said.
Loneliness can increase the risk of suicide for the young and the old alike. Lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, and even when they are relaxing, she stated.
Chronic loneliness is something else entirely and it is one of the surest markers in existence for maladjustment. In children, it leads to all kinds of problems. It sets in motion a course on which children spin their way to outcast status and develop delinquency and other forms of anti-social behaviour.
In adults, loneliness is a major cause of depression and alcoholism. And it increasingly appears to be the cause of a range of medical problems, some of which take decades to show up.
A medical practitioner, Dr Isah Omadai says that it is not only addiction such as smoking, drinking or drugs that could have debilitating effect on the health of an individual. Loneliness is far more damaging and dangerous than people think.
Omadai explains: “Loneliness raises levels of circulating stress hormones (cortisol) and blood pressure. It weakens the regulation of the circulatory system which makes the heart muscle work harder by subjecting the blood vessels to damage due to blood flow turbulence.
According to the medical practitioner, loneliness destroys the quality and efficiency of sleep, making sleep less restorative, both physically and psychologically.
Lonely people wake up intermittently at night and spend less time in bed actually sleeping than those that are non-lonely, says Omadai.
He adds that other health risks associated with loneliness include depression, cardiovascular disease and stroke, increased stress levels, decreased memory and learning, anti-social behavior, poor decision-making, alcoholism and drug abuse, progression of Alzheimer’s disease, altered brain function and so on.
Loneliness, depression and suicide are often associated with one another. It is interesting to note that women over 18 years report symptoms of depression far more than men. Yet episodes of suicide in all age groups from early adolescence are far higher in men than in women, says Michael G Flood, an Australian sociologist.
This is so because from studies conducted on a group of people, it suggested that men do not seek medical help nearly as much as women do and therefore, episodes of men who may well be depressed but not seeking help is not reported. This is especially the case in rural and remote communities where men typically avoid seeking health care interventions, Flood adds.