Among social determinants of health, loneliness can hugely impact a person’s mental state, physical health, and overall wellbeing. In this brief, we explore how social determinants of health, with a focus on loneliness, affect health over the course of a lifespan, taking into consideration the unique circumstances and needs at each stage of life.
of life lost, or the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day1
dollars in additional federal spending, every year2
We feel lonely when our current number of social relations (and the quality of those) do not match what we desire. This feeling can lead to a loss of our sense of belongingness, satisfaction with life, and is associated with the onset of co-occuring physical and mental illnesses.8,18
A broken heart exhibits similar physical pain levels as a broken limb because our nervous system processes social rejection in the same area of the brain as physical pain. Evolution has wired socialization into the brain’s automatic reflexes on account of human contact dramatically increasing our chances of survival.14,15
The default for the human brain is to assess and respond to our social context and stimuli, otherwise known as our “default network". When we feel socially fulfilled, there is a boost in our brain’s reward center (activating dopamine and oxytocin) along with healthy function in the parts of our brain that process social exclusion.11,12,13
Studies have found that there may be genomic and hereditary indicators for loneliness, including a study of older people that found 209 abnormally expressed genes in their lonely group. In the lonely people, genes in charge of activating inflammation were over-expressed while those regulating antiviral and antibody mechanisms w ere under-expressed.6,9,10
Take a look at how social connection varies across our lifespan
While these are statistically relevant, humans have the ability to survive and surpass their circumstances to live full and healthy lives. Loneliness, and other social, circumstantial, and behavioral determinants have as much impact on your health as your biology or genetics. If you or someone you know is feeling lonely, check out resources in your neighborhood or reach out to talk to someone. Sometimes a little bit of human contact can go a long way towards living a healthier life.