(image via The Mary Foundation)
If you asked me last week who I thought was unhealthier, a loner or an overweight chain smoker, certainly I would have chosen the latter. However, at the Mary Foundation’s Conference on Loneliness today, I learned that in the long-term, loneliness is worse for your health than smoking or obesity.
Dr. John Cacioppo explained that loneliness puts the brain on alert for social threats by increasing vascular resistance, the same brain activity that occurs when someone is in a fight. As well, the lonelier the individual is, the higher their blood pressure. Loneliness also causes fragmented sleep since the body and mind are on constant alert. This means that there is never true rest and the day's stresses keep compiling. What’s more, loneliness worsens ones social skills as it causes individuals to act shyer, more selfishly (to protect oneself and ones interests in times of threat), and in other ways that push people away and perpetuate the cycle.
But everyone experiences loneliness at some point(s) in their life and it is not always bad. In fact, loneliness is an incredibly important human experience, explained various speakers.
Breakups, changes, transitions in our lives can cause us to feel lonely and push us to seek out different relationships. In the short term, loneliness makes us more human, altruistic and loving. A great example given by Dr. Cacioppo was of a little girl in primary school who gets a time out for acting up. During the minute that she is excluded from the group, she is visibly upset, crying, and vulnerable. Once she re-enters the group she apologizes to her playmates, is polite and respectful and overall a better citizen. Dr. Cacioppo goes on to argue that our ability to learn socially is what differentiates us from other animals, not our opposable thumbs.
On a personal level, I can’t help but think how loneliness affects the elderly in senior care facilities, particularly for those residents who are more cognitive fit. It must be terribly lonely to be in a place where the majority of those around you have mentally deteriorated and there is little chance for meaningful dialogue. That coupled with decreasing visits from family and friends must take a toll on ones health. It makes me think that, while it is not without its challenges, Asian or more traditional cultures of having grandparents live at home may have had it right. As populations age and senior care facilities become too full to accept new residents, I'm curious how we will adapt to do what's best for our loved ones.
While the Conference topic was quite grim, I’m glad Loneliness, such a basic human emotion that is often taboo, is finally getting some attention. The fact that the Mary Foundation, a big name in Denmark due to its Chairman the crown Princess Mary of Denmark, will be taking on Loneliness will make people take the issue seriously and want to do something about it. If it takes a local celebrity to get an issue heard, that's good enough for me. I'm eager to see what the foundation will come up with to battle this immense and challenging global social issue.
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