Loneliness in our Human Code

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.

Social Isolation Costs Us

8 years

of life lost, or the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day1

$6.7B

dollars in additional federal
spending, every year2

When We Feel Excluded,
We Lose Our Fight Against Disease.

It Increases Our Risk for3,4

heart
heart disease
dementia
dementia
arthritis
arthritis
diabetes
type-2 diabetes
depression
depression
blood pressure
high blood pressure
cancer
metastatic cancer
stroke
stroke
suicide
suicide

It Impacts Our Body Function4,5,6,7

blood vessel
narrowing blood vessels to preserve body heat
stress
elevating levels of the stress hormone cortisol
antibody
reducing antibody protection
decreased cognition
decreasing cognitive function

It's Not Just a Feeling.
Loneliness...

is a Co-morbidity

We feel lonely when our current number of social relations (and the quality of those) do not match what we desire8,18. 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.

Manifests as Physical Pain

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 pain14,15. Evolution has wired socialization into the brain’s automatic reflexes on account of human contact dramatically increasing our chances of survival15.

Is a dysfunction of the brain

The default for the human brain is to assess and respond to our social context and stimuli, otherwise known as our “default network"11. 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 exclusion11,12,13.

Can affect Gene Expression

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 group6,9,10.
 In the lonely people, genes in charge of activating inflammation were over-expressed while those regulating antiviral and antibody mechanisms w
ere under-expressed6.

The causes and consequences are
unique to every person

Take a look at how social connection varies
Across our lifespan

Resilience in Our Human Code

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.

Take Steps Now34

Authors

Vanessa Li, University of Washington

Vanessa specializes in health systems and public health modeling, with an emphasis in substance abuse and disease prevention research. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.S. in Public Policy and a double minor in Business Economics and Global Health. Vanessa is working towards a graduate degree in biostatistics at the University of Washington.

Jennifer Patel, GoInvo

Jennifer is a designer-developer hybrid specializing in user interface design and front-end development. She creates beautiful designs using big and small data, often for health and enterprise services. Jennifer joined Invo in 2011 and is a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Contributors

Juhan Sonin, GoInvo, MIT

Juhan specialized in software design and system engineering. He operates, and is the director of, GoInvo. He has worked at Apple, National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and MITRE. Juhan co-founded Invo Boston in 2009 and is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently lectures at MIT.

Parsuree Vatanasirisuk, GoInvo

Parsuree is a user experience designer and illustrator with background in industrial design. She makes the complex beautiful and approachable through illustration and information design. Parsuree joined Invo in 2018, and has a BA in Industrial Design from Chulalongkorn University and is a MFA candidate of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).

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