Some Causes and Health Consequences of Loneliness

Hispanic teenaged girl sitting alone at prom
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Loneliness is a universal human emotion that is both complex and unique to each individual. Loneliness has no single common cause, so the prevention and treatment for this potentially damaging state of mind can vary dramatically.

For example, a lonely child who struggles to make friends at his school has different needs than a lonely old man whose wife has recently died. In order to understand loneliness, it is important to take a closer look at exactly what we mean by the term "lonely" as well as the various causes, health consequences, symptoms, and potential treatments for loneliness.

What Is Loneliness?

While common definitions of loneliness describe it as a state of solitude or being alone, loneliness is actually a state of mind. Loneliness causes people to feel empty, alone, and unwanted. People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people.

Loneliness, according to many experts, is not necessarily about being alone. Instead, if you feel alone and isolated, then that is how loneliness plays into your state of mind. For example, a college freshman might feel lonely despite being surrounded by roommates and other peers. A soldier beginning his military career might feel lonely after being deployed to a foreign country, despite being constantly surrounded by other troop members.


According to research by Dr. John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist, co-founder of the field of social neuroscience and one of the top loneliness experts in the U.S., loneliness is strongly connected to genetics.

Other contributing factors include situational variables, such as physical isolation, moving to a new location, and divorce. The death of someone significant in a person's life can also lead to feelings of loneliness. Loneliness can also be a symptom of a psychological disorder such as depression.

Loneliness can also be attributed to internal factors such as low self-esteem.

People who lack confidence in themselves often believe that they are unworthy of the attention or regard of other people. This can lead to isolation and chronic loneliness.

Health Risks

Loneliness has a wide range of negative effects on both physical and mental health

Health Risks Associated With Loneliness
Depression and suicide
Cardiovascular disease and stroke
Increased stress levels
Decreased memory and learning
Antisocial behavior
Poor decision-making
Alcoholism and drug abuse
The progression of Alzheimer's disease
Altered brain function

Research has shown that loneliness can impact stress, heart health, and immunity. But these are not the only areas in which loneliness takes its toll.

"Lonely adults consume more alcohol and get less exercise than those who are not lonely. Their diet is higher in fat, their sleep is less efficient, and they report more daytime fatigue. Loneliness also disrupts the regulation of cellular processes deep within the body, predisposing us to premature aging." —Dr. John Cacioppo

Researchers have found that low levels of loneliness are associated with marriage, higher incomes, and higher educational status. High levels of loneliness are associated with physical health symptoms, living alone, small social networks, and low-quality social relationships.

Close Friends Combat Loneliness

Researchers also suggest that loneliness is becoming more common in the United States. When polled as part of a 1984 questionnaire, respondents most frequently reported having three close confidants. When the question was asked again in 2004, the most common response was zero confidants. The rise of the Internet and ironically, social media, are partially to blame.

Experts believe that it is not the quantity of social interaction that combats loneliness, but it is the quality. Having just three or four close friends is enough to ward off loneliness and reduce the negative health consequences associated with this state of mind.

Loneliness Can Be Contagious

One study by Cacioppo suggests that loneliness may actually be contagious. In a ten-year study, researchers examined how loneliness spreads in social networks. The results indicated that people close to someone experiencing loneliness were 52 percent more likely to become lonely as well.

Treatment and Prevention

Loneliness can be overcome. It does require a conscious effort on your part to make a change. Making a change, in the long run, can make you happier, healthier and impact others around you in a positive way.

Tips to Prevent Loneliness
Recognize that loneliness is a sign that something needs to change.
Understand the effects that loneliness has on your life, both physically and mentally.
Consider doing community service or another activity that you enjoy. These situations present great opportunities to meet people and cultivate new friendships and social interactions.
Focus on developing quality relationships with people who share similar attitudes, interests, and values with you.
Expect the best. Lonely people often expect rejection, so instead focus on positive thoughts and attitudes in your social relationships.