Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Good company, good health

Most of us have experienced being lonely before. And we all know that it does not feel good. Recent research now suggests that it is not the only bad aspect of loneliness. Most likely, it is also hazardous to our health.
In a ScienceMagazine Podcast, researcher Greg Miller explains that when people are lonely over prolonged periods of time, like months or even years, they become more susceptible to infections and heart disease. With respect to longevity, they have about the same health risk as being a smoker.

But how can it be defined whether someone is lonely? Miller points out that the number of social contacts or other subjective criteria are not important. People with fewer social contacts, of course, are more likely to feel lonely. However, it is the subjective feeling of loneliness that counts.

In an article published in Science Magazine, he goes a bit more into detail and outlines the research done by John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago. He found that lonely people have a higher blood pressure and elevated levels of stress hormones. Both used to be adaptive in the past, signaling us that we needed to strengthen our social ties again, which was important to make sure our genes were passed on to the next generation. The activation of this alert state, according to Cacioppo, also leads to poorer sleep quality and less satisfaction with leisure activities. Therefore, recreation is not as good when someone is lonely.

The impact of loneliness goes even further. Cacioppo found that lonely people do more poorly on tasks involving executive functioning and have unhealthier diets than non-lonely people. They also pay more attention to negative social cues and thus have a higher risk of anxiety disorders.

Apparently there are more than enough reasons that speak against being lonely. So what can be done in order to become lonely? Greg Miller suggests preventative and curative measures. Preventatively, one simply has to remain open and available to the people around one. Curatively, techniques from cognitive-behavioural therapy can be used: Clients have to change the way they perceive contacts with other people. Therefore, being good company is always a good idea. So stay connected and healthy!

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