Overview: Researchers discuss the harmful psychological, physical and economic consequences of loneliness.
They say you can’t appreciate friendship, but loneliness costs Australians $2.7 billion a year, according to a report by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre. It is an epidemic that continues to grow during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the start of the pandemic, feelings of loneliness have increased across Australia. Fortunately, the residents of Western Australia were feeling relatively well. We had the second highest score when it came to ‘social connectivity’, just behind the Australian Capital Territory. In contrast, the states of Queensland and South Australia had the lowest scores for social connectedness.
The term “loneliness” itself is only a few hundred years old. The negative connotations associated with loneliness do not appear in literature until the late 18th century.
While the word is relatively new, it’s hard to say when the emotional experience of loneliness became commonplace. In Shakespeare’s All’s well that ends wellloneliness mixes with heartbreak. In Hamlet“Perhaps Ophelia drowned from loneliness.
Loneliness is mentioned in the ancient dream story of D’harawal Bah’naga and Mun’dah (The Goanna and the Black snake) – retold by Sydney botanist Frances Bodkin.
“FROM HIS BAD BEHAVIOR HE [BAH’NAGA] WAS A VERY LONELY MAN, AND A WOMAN HAS NEVER SAID SOFT WORDS TO HIM.
So, did we put modern emotions in old stories or did common cultures suffer from loneliness too?
THE GENDER GAP IN LONELINESS
In Australia, the economic costs of loneliness are greater for women than for men.
Astghik Mavisakalyan, an associate professor of economics at Curtin University, reports on the economic consequences of loneliness. She says it’s hard to pinpoint why women feel lonelier than men.
“It is likely that there are multiple and complex reasons behind the gender gaps in loneliness,” Astghik says.
“Data on loneliness are self-reported. It is possible that women simply experience less stigma and are more comfortable reporting that they are lonely.”
“BUT IT IS ALSO POSSIBLE THAT WOMEN ARE RAISED WITH HIGHER EXPECTATIONS FOR SOCIAL RELATIONS. THEY MAY BE MORE TO FEEL LONELY IF THESE ARE NOT FULFILLED.”
Astghik says one factor could be that men have more opportunities to socialize through work. This often happens in the years when many women stay at home to take care of their children.
According to the study, Australian women feel most lonely at age 17. And while reports of loneliness decline during adulthood, they suddenly increase for women over 65.
As for Australian men, reports of loneliness peak around the age of 50.
HOW DOES LONELY FEEL?
When we experience a high level of temporary loneliness, it triggers the body to release more cortisol. And long-lasting feelings of loneliness correlate with higher average cortisol levels.
Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, prepares your body for a fight-or-flight response. It triggers your body to produce more glucose for extra energy. This increase in stress and the unpleasant feelings that come with loneliness can do two things.
For a social species like us, being lonely means being vulnerable to attack. The fight-or-flight response can prepare us for this attack. Second, the emotional pain associated with loneliness gives us a biological hunger to connect with others.
This leads to a phenomenon that Dr. Tim Dean describes it as ‘evolutionary mismatch’. This mismatch occurs when behaviors ingrained in us by evolution to survive become unhealthy in modern society. For example, our hunger for carbohydrates has turned into an obesity epidemic.
THE PHYSICAL IMPLICATIONS
the 2018 Australian Loneliness Report found that 25% of Australians feel lonely, while 30% feel they have no group of friends.
So how does this emotional experience affect our physical health? Loneliness is associated with a range of health problems. It has been linked to cognitive decline (about a 2% decrease in IQ over time) and an increase in the risk of dementia.
In fact, most of the estimated $2.7 billion price tag is the result of medical costs associated with declining health.
But does chronic illness cause loneliness or only increase the risk of illness?
Professor Tegan Cruwys conducts research in community psychology and mental health at the Australian National University. She says they are separate phenomena, often caused by similar social factors.
“The overlap in who experiences depression and loneliness points to the fact that the social problems that lead to the experience of loneliness — exclusion, discrimination, and disadvantage — are also critical determinants of clinical depression.”
Astghik’s research suggests that loneliness likely leads to poor health outcomes and behavior.
“More than half of women and men aged 65 who feel lonely most of the time report ill health,” Astghik says.
“[This is] about twice as often as those who do not feel lonely.”
Chronic loneliness causes behavioral changes and stimulates the immune system’s inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation contributes to a range of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and heart disease.
Both Tegan and Astghik say the best way to combat loneliness is to participate in a community. If individualism contributed to the loneliness epidemic, perhaps rediscovering our communities can stop it.
About this news about loneliness research
Author: Thomas Crow
Contact: Thomas Crow – Particle
Image: The image is in the public domain