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Research—loneliness as bad as smoking: why social connections matter for your health

Photo by Lily
Image by Lily

Life with chronic illness can be lonely. Not surprising, researchers have found that socially isolated individuals are more at risk of illness and death.

Living with chronic conditions like fibromyalgia is trying enough. Many of us struggle with maintaining social lives for various reasons. Sometimes it’s because we can’t manage, other times because it’s difficult to find people who understand, and want to be friends with someone who is chronically ill.

During my university years I wanted so badly to be social, but it was one of the worse periods for my health. I was so riddled with exhaustion and pain every day that oftentimes a simple conversation felt overwhelming for both body and mind. Thankfully, I had a lovely group of university friends but I often wished I could go out with them more and expand my social circles. While they were out socialising, I was laid up in bed reeling from pain. Given that I had just migrated to a new country, this wasn’t at all good for my social life.

Life with any chronic illness can be isolating, especially for young people. The Mental Health Foundation recently confirmed this too, after their recent study found that 18 to 34 year-olds were more likely to feel lonely more often than over-55s. We know that loneliness can have all sorts of consequences for people, like leading to depression for instance.

Social isolation as bad as smoking

But now, researchers at Harvard University have discovered a link between loneliness and levels of a blood-clotting protein called fibrinogen, infamous for causing heart attacks and strokes. Fibrinogen levels increase in our bodies when our bodies go into fight or flight mode, which is activated by social isolation.

High fibrinogen levels are bad for us, raising our blood pressure among other things. In the research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers compared levels of the protein with the numbers of people in a person’s social networks. When the numbers of social connections dropped, the levels of fibrinogen rose.

For instance, people with just 5 friends had 20 percent higher fibrinogen levels than those with 25 friends. Having less than 10-12 friends had the same impact on fibrinogen as smoking. In other words, having fewer friends is as risky as smoking.

Elena Mitsura
Image by Elena Mitsura

The report said that social isolation makes people feel threatened and vulnerable, in turn triggering the fight or flight response.

Coping

I’m very interested in this research, because it underscores the importance of having strong social connections, particularly for those of us who might be more vulnerable to isolation because of life-long conditions. With little or no connections we are potentially putting our health at risk.

Of course, back at university my wishing to go out wasn’t enough to make it happen. I simply couldn’t manage it at the time. My question is how can we increase and maintain our social circles while managing our health? For me, I’ve slowly been achieving this by building relationships with like-minded people I meet. I started with places that I frequent – for instance, work, clubs, blogs (though in a virtual community, it still counts) church and places in my local community like the supermarket. Of course we won’t end up being friends with everyone we meet, but the important bit is to start somewhere – we never know what a seed will grow into until we water it.

What’s your social circle like? Are you lonely? And what, if anything, do you do to upkeep and expand your social networks?

Gentle Hugs 🙂

potofcallaloo
Alisha Nurse is a curry-loving writer & comms professional who holds a Master of Arts Degree in Journalism (International) from the University of Westminster, London. Get in touch with any feedback or questions via the contact form in the 'About' section.

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