Relationship Between Loneliness, Psychiatric Disorders and Physical Health. A Review on the Psychological Aspects of Loneliness

Loneliness is the absence of imperative social relations and lack of affection in current social relationships. Loneliness is one of the main indicators of social well-being. Loneliness is caused not by being alone, but by being without some definite needed relationship or set of relationships. Loneliness reminds us of the pain and warns us of the threat of becoming isolated. If humans become lonely, then various psychiatric and physical problems may develop.

Contrary to popular belief that it is the elderly in society who are the most lonely, the researchers noted that loneliness is generally reported more amongst adolescents and young children than in other age groups. The reason for this is that older people have had time to develop coping skills and can adjust accordingly to solitude, whereas these skills are not present in adolescents. Adolescence is also the time of life when being accepted and loved is of major importance to the formation of one’s identity and any rejection can lead to the development of loneliness. However, the researchers also noted that elderly who have physical illness, disability or live alone report higher prevalence of loneliness, compared to elderly without physical illness and disability and those who live with spouses and families. Furthermore loneliness gradually diminishes through the middle adult years, and then again increases in old age (i.e., ≥70 years).

The report analysed in more detail both the psychiatric and physical health issues that are related to loneliness.

  • Depression – lonely people suffer from more depressive symptoms, as they have than been reported to be less happy, less satisfied and more pessimistic. Further loneliness and depression share common symptoms like helplessness and pain. There is so much similarity in between loneliness and depression that many authors consider it a subset of depression.
  • Alzheimer’s Disease – loneliness is associated with a more than to fold increase in the risk for developing dementia as loneliness is associated with a loss of cognition in old age
  • Alcoholism – loneliness is recognized as a contributing, maintaining and poor prognostic factor in the development of alcohol abuse. Further it is recognized as an essential risk factor in all the stages of alcoholism. Various studies have demonstrated lonely people with heavy drinking are more vulnerable to alcohol related problems.
  • Child Abuse – Women who were abused as children were more lonely than those who had not been abused. There was a relationship between the time over which the abuse lasted and the number of incidents and increased loneliness.
  • Bereavement – loneliness is obviously expected when people grieve the loss of someone to whom they were closely attached. However, the experience of loneliness around loss was found to lessen if the grieving person had a stronger family a social network around them.
  • Immune system – loneliness is associated with impaired cellular immunity as reflected by lower natural killer cell activity.
  • Stress – loneliness is not only a source of acute stress but also long term chronic stress which exacerbates psychiatric problems.
  • Suicide – research has revealed a strong association between suicide ideation, attempted suicide, actual suicide and loneliness. The prevalence of suicide ideation, attempted suicide and suicide rises with the degree of loneliness.
  • Personality Disorders – various personality disorders are associated with loneliness including borderline personality disorder and schizoid personality disorder. Indeed, intolerance of being alone is considered a core feature of borderline personality disorder.
  • Sleep – loneliness has been associated with poor sleep quality which in turn leads to daytime dysfunction such as low energy and fatigue. Loneliness appears to lead to more nightly micro- awakenings leading to poor daytime function.
  • Inflammatory disease – loneliness related to chronic stress can cause low-grade peripheral inflammation. This type of inflammation has been linked to inflammatory diseases including diabetes, autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus and cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease, atherosclerosis and hypertension.
  • Other physical health issues – various studies have showen that there is a relationship between loneliness obesity, physiological aging, cancer, poor hearing and overall poor health.
    The report outlined 4 broad types of interventions for helping to reduce and alleviate loneliness. These are: (1) Developing social skills, (2) Giving social support, (3) Developing opportunities for social interaction, and (4) Recognizing maladaptive social cognition.

The authors concluded that loneliness is one of the main indicators of social well-being and can lead to various psychiatric and physical disorders. If left unattended, loneliness can have serious consequences for mental and physical health.

Raheel Mushtaq, Sheikh Shoib, Tabindah Shah, and Sahil Mushtaq Relationship Between Loneliness, Psychiatric Disorders and Physical Health ? A Review on the Psychological Aspects of Loneliness  J Clin Diagn Res. 2014 Sep; 8(9): WE01–WE04.

Published online 2014 Sep 20. doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2014/10077.4828

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