Last month The New Republic reported that new and growing volumes of research indicate that being lonely is unhealthy. Literally unhealthy — not just to one’s emotional and psychological condition but at the cellular level: Loneliness makes people sick, and sick people sicker.
“… long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking,” the magazine wrote.
And that may be one reason why Las Vegas, a town full of transients, is such an unhealthy place to be. In a related and depressing note, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in May that the rate of suicides jumped markedly from 1999 to 2010, especially for white, middle-aged men and women, and especially in the West.
The rate for white men and women age 35-64 jumped by 40 percent. Nationally, the group with the highest increase in suicide was white men, age 50-54, in which the rate increased by 49 percent, and among women 60-64, who experienced a 60 percent increase.
Suicide rates are not directly tied to loneliness, but the numbers suggest that something is happening to those Baby Boomers. And loneliness, the science suggests, is a killer.
University of Chicago researchers found back in 2006 that lonely people have blood pressure readings as much as 30 points higher than nonlonely people. More recent research by another University of Chicago psychologist, presented last year, ties loneliness to hardening of the arteries, problems with learning and memory and, significantly, with inflammation in the body.
The University of Chicago researcher, John Cacioppo, has found that the genes involved in immune system response — the response linked to inflammation — are overexpressed in lonely individuals. Additionally, key genes for antibody production and antiviral responses were underexpressed.
The result is potential health problems, from diabetes to cancerous tumors, heart disease to cognitive decline. Additionally, issues such as suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse are more likely to affect lonely people.
All told, it means that lonely people are more likely to get sick, and if they’re sick, they’re going to be sicker than their non-lonely counterparts.
“Within the next decade, research is going to show that things aren’t just what we see on the surface,” says Theresa Scott, a licensed marriage and family therapist intern who has worked with clients to address issues of depression and loneliness. “What we’re seeing is that things are happening on a deeper level, a cellular level.”
Depression and loneliness, and the health effects that both engender, work together to harm individuals, Scott believes. The conditions affect every part of a person’s life — their relationships with family and friends, and often the work place as well.
Here in Las Vegas, the town attracts many transients who don’t have social networks to depend on. Alcohol and substance abuse are common, and that only adds to the ultimate health cost, Scott says.
“Vegas is a town filled with instant gratification,” she says. “People come here to let loose, to drop their inhibitions, to go drinking and have quick sexual encounters. It fills that emptiness, but after the weekend is over, it comes back — almost like a hangover — and you feel it even more.
“The partying, the hooking up, was just a temporary fix.”
Christie Ackmann, a licensed clinical social worker working with the Buddhist Psychotherapy Institute in Las Vegas, agrees that Las Vegas is a challenging place for people dealing with issues of alienation. She says she has seen both the negative health impacts of loneliness and the positive health effects of “mindfulness and meditation.”
These issues are particularly challenging for the population of older people in Southern Nevada, who may be losing their social and family networks due to loss of mobility and to the death of those closest to them, she says.
“As their friends and family members become less available, the world sort of closes in,” Ackmann says. “The strengths of our support communities really affect our mental and physical health.”
It can be a challenge to build the kind of social networks that people need to maintain well-being. “A vast majority of my colleagues, all of them say the same thing: Vegas is a difficult town to make friends in, to meet quality friends,” Scott says.
Dr. David Gosse, a psychologist with 11 years of experience in Las Vegas, says that the way people respond to the challenges of loneliness and depression can be very different. The social support network is one of the critical differences. He suggests that it’s not the number of people around us, but the depth of our connections, that matter.
“The thing about loneliness is that it’s not necessarily related to whether we have people in our lives,” Gosse says. “It’s possible to have tons of people around and still be lonely.
“Everybody’s going to be lonely or depressed at times,” he notes. “It’s like the common cold. But common colds can turn into pneumonia.”
He suggests seeking assistance if the depression or loneliness has gone on for more than a couple of weeks, is very severe or if a person is turning to substance abuse or dangerous behavior to compensate. “These are all possible signs that we’re getting lonely with a capital L or depressed with a capital D.”
Loneliness sometimes seems impossible with the vast number of connections we share with today’s technology, but professionals say the computer is not a cure-all.
Scott has mixed feeling about the creation of cyber-relationships through Facebook or other electronic networks. On the one hand, it provides a social network that can be supportive. On the other, the kind of intimacy, of casual physical contact and simply seeing the body language of another person, are important components of socializing that are lost online.
“It’s really important to establish some sort of social support group,” she says. “It’s really important to have someone you can trust and with whom you can talk.”
Ackmann says Las Vegas presents unique obstacles for people.
“There are so many transient people who move in and out of the city,” she says, so they lack those critical networks of deep friendships and supportive families.
Scott says that sometimes just getting outside in the sunlight, especially with new friends, can make a huge difference. Research indicates that exposure to sunlight and vitamin D can make people feel better, and the sunlight affects brain chemistry.
But sometimes that’s easier said than done. Scott says people can still be “surrounded by people and still be lonely.”
“And that’s one of the worst feelings, because it’s hard to understand,” she says. “People start to cave in on themselves.”
Ultimately, those feelings of depression and loneliness can lead to a crisis: divorce, loss of a job, suicide or health event. Ackmann says the toll of loneliness can be a slow, insidious process. “As people start to feel lonely and depressed, they withdraw more. It becomes a cyclical process that feeds on itself.”
Before it gets to the crisis point, “take an inventory of your life and see what’s missing,” Scott says. “If there was something you would change, what would that be? What steps would you take to make that change?”
And don’t be afraid to seek outside help from a medical or psychological professional, from a church, from community centers.
‘There are places out there that can help you,” she says. The good news is that even as scientists and medical professionals understand the profound damage that loneliness can inflict on a person’s body, the understanding of how to address these issues also is growing. Beyond prescription medication, cognitive-behavioral therapies have helped people literally retrain their brains and behavior in positive ways.
Ackmann says her institute starts with meditation to focus on the well-being of clients, then extends that well-being to others. The institute also urges clients to be active and support their physical health — which encourages interaction with other people and thus, they “can create a positive cyclical process.”
Scott is also looking for positive change with her patients. She notes that research shows that the brain and cognitive processes are fundamentally malleable in negative but also positive ways.
“We can change what we’ve been given.”