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On the Brain: Lonely hearts may become sick hearts
February 9th, 2011
04:37 PM ET

On the Brain: Lonely hearts may become sick hearts

In the run-up to Valentine's Day, some of you may be excited for romance, and others may be bitter about solitude. It's no fun feeling lonely, and now there's even more research to show that loneliness may be bad for your health.

Loneliness isn't about the number of people around you; it's a state of mind about feeling like you can't count on anyone in the uncertain, threatening world in which you live.

UCLA researcher Steven Cole and colleagues have demonstrated that this mindset may be harmful to your health. In a study of 93 adults, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they found that people who say they're chronically lonely have an overexpression of genes connected to cells that produce an inflammatory response to tissue damage.

While that's good in the short run, it's common knowledge that long-term inflammation leads to cardiovascular disease and cancer.

There's a good evolutionary explanation for all of this: Back when most humans didn't live long enough to worry about those ailments, people who were alone needed their bodies to have extra defenses against injury and bacterial infections that they could pick up from a wound from a predator. On the other hand, those in the company of trusted peers didn't have to worry as much about such injuries, but they were more likely to pick up a virus from others, so they would need to have stronger antiviral defenses.

This is just a correlation between gene expression and loneliness of course; it's not certain that one causes the other, but this is just one of many studies showing a connection between poor health outcomes and loneliness. Anti-inflammatory drugs may be appropriate for some people who can't get out of the lonely mindset, Cole said.

"The more we can learn about the biological mechanisms of these effects, the more we may be able to protect people from them pharmacologically," Cole said. On the other hand, "if you want to change your life philosophy and think of world as a more supportive environment I think that’s a great thing."

Fitness and companionship

You may have found that a romantic partner to exercise with can really help your motivation. The New York Times delves into this topic of relationships and fitness, surveying research suggesting that lonely people may not reap the same benefits of exercise as those who are coupled.

Now, a lot of this is based on rodent studies. It seems that rats' brains generate new neurons and neural connections only when exercising with other rats. It appears that this is true for both male and female rats, but we don't yet know about humans. Alexis Stranahan tells the Times that it may take longer for people to reap brain improvements from exercise if they are lonely, because of the stress hormones associated with loneliness.

For what we do know about humans and exercise, companionship isn't always foolproof. A study published in December found that married women and remarried men often got less fit, and single women who remained single kept fit; men who divorced gained fitness.

Love is healthy

But there are plenty of health benefits to falling in love, and staying in love, as the Washington Post points out. A 2008 study found that blood pressure is lower among married people than unmarried people, and those with the highest blood pressure are unhappily married. And a Carnegie Mellon University study found that people in love tend to get fewer colds.

As usual, it sucks to be lonely and it's great to be in love, but there are all kinds of subtleties about why.


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soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. CFS Facts

    "Companionship isn't always foolproof" - true! Not only did I get sick while in a committed relationship, but he then acted like I got sick specifically to inconvenience him, and set out to find ways to make me die faster. Nothing so obvious as pulling a gun on me; little things, like hiding things I'm allergic to in food and finding ways to make me violate doctors' orders on what I should not do. (e.g., doctor said I should cut back to part-time work, so he quit his job in order to force me to remain employed full-time) I actually was healthier without him.

    February 9, 2011 at 18:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jess

      I had a very similar experience. My husband intentionally contributed to my illness while simultaneously using it to control and abuse me. I'm much happier and healthier after leaving such a remorseless person.

      February 9, 2011 at 21:59 | Report abuse |
  2. Jim

    Wow, now how did you manage to wind up in such a dysfunctional relationship to start with? Perhaps you have 'Victim' tattooed on your forehead.

    February 9, 2011 at 18:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. TxGal

    The article opens with two options: 'some of you may be excited for romance, and others may be bitter about solitude' How about this one: excited about solitude? The article acknowledges that the highest blood pressures recorded were among unhappily married folks, and I kknow that I've never been lonelier than when I was married. Most people really need to feel that they are not alone, I think. The bottom line for me is that I prefer to be alone (not lonely) and at peace than together but in conflict all the time.

    February 9, 2011 at 18:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Inner peace

      I whole heartedly concur. We are responsible for our own well being. Once acheived, will attract people of interest.

      February 10, 2011 at 12:57 | Report abuse |
    • Maureen

      Perfectly said. Beautiful sentiment. There's alot to be said for "shining in your own light." Peace to you! 8-)

      February 10, 2011 at 14:52 | Report abuse |
    • Inner peace

      Oh.... thankyou so much for sharing your beautiful spirits ! May you have much warmth, love, and peace. HAPPY VALENTINES day. We are loved, know it.

      February 10, 2011 at 15:31 | Report abuse |
  4. doc

    for a long time i was somewhat bitter about being alone after my wife died, i tried to find someone and discovered that women these days seem to delight in causing pain, so i finally learned its ok to be alone.

    February 9, 2011 at 19:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Justina

      Doc, women nowadays delight causing pain on men because they have never seen real sacrificial men or real beautiful women. Did you seek a woman to comfort yourself or to make a woman happy again? It's a collective responsibility.

      February 10, 2011 at 01:30 | Report abuse |
    • Aurora Borealis

      I am so sorry about your wife's death. I hope that you can love again some day.

      February 10, 2011 at 09:20 | Report abuse |
    • Donna

      I recommend some serious therapy for you.

      February 10, 2011 at 13:38 | Report abuse |
  5. Tony

    I believe it that old adage. "it's better to be alone than to wish you were."

    February 9, 2011 at 19:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. san

    I'm at peace now that I'm living alone. No one will ever abuse me again.

    February 9, 2011 at 20:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Justina

      San, you were born to be loved. Accept your Creator God's love in Jesus and let Him heal you. There is no one like you in the entire universe. And there are people who love you and whom you can show your love to. Christians pray for you.

      February 10, 2011 at 01:24 | Report abuse |
  7. Lynne

    I agree with Tony. I'd far rather be alone on Valentine's Day, Christmas, or whatever, than wish I were. After spending years of holidays with my ex-husband's dysfunctional family, I'm glad to be free of them. I had a great Christmas alone, BTW, watching DVD's and knitting. As for Valentine's Day, I can now laugh about the time my then-husband borrowed money from his sister to send me roses. He promised to pay her back but didn't - so she dunned me for the money!

    February 9, 2011 at 20:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bill

      There is a name for your kind of relationship. It is called: The Trailer-Park Romance

      February 10, 2011 at 17:05 | Report abuse |
  8. DEA

    There are no chicken bones in cup cakes.

    February 9, 2011 at 22:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Justina

    Mankind, don't feel lonely. The Creator God loves us and sent His Son for us to this planet. Just let's stop being selfish. Look to God as we should and look around; there are always people in need whom we can help.

    February 9, 2011 at 22:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. skippy

    I have enjoyed raising 3 beautiful daughters who now are adults and live far away. We went through a bitter divorce (we meaning my daughters and I, since my ex decided he didn't like them either) and now I am living on my own in a small town due to the great job I found here. I must say that while I am happy being on my own and living a life of peace in a beautiful piece of Gods country the lonlieness does affect me. I'm happy with myself and my life but feel very empty inside more than I feel is "normal". I see my daughters when I can and speak with them on the phone regularly, but I do worry about illness or accident coming my way and having no "support" readily available. It's a feeling that keeps me on edge at times. I truly think this article is true. My heart yearns for stimulation and I can agree that it does make me feel physically ill at times.

    February 9, 2011 at 23:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Katherine

      I also am single. If you are single, it can be difficult to "connect" with other singles, even people in general to do social activiities. My godsend has been http://www.meetup.com. This is a FREE social networking website. I'm in my mid-forties, and have joined hiking group, winetasting, camping, and a walking group. I have met new friends to enjoy social activites with. I don't know who invented Meetup.com, but it's a pretty amazing thing. It's not just in the US, but has spread to other countries,too. Good luck, "Nobody Special" You are special. I

      February 10, 2011 at 00:13 | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      You found a great job in a small town in the country??? Maybe you should play the lottery!! Sign me up!!!

      February 10, 2011 at 11:29 | Report abuse |
  11. NobodySpecial

    For single and lonely people, Valentine's Day is the bane of their existence. If you don't have any valentines (or anything romantic-involving) to give to, you are out of luck and feeling like the biggest loser in the world. I'm much more comfortable thinking this is just the chocolate companies', the stuffed animal companies', and Hallmark's way of getting money from us. And to suffer by seeing couples all happy and in-love with each other makes us ten times more miserable. Valentine's Day sucks. Period.

    February 9, 2011 at 23:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Jumbo

    What if, the heart has passed the stage of loneliness and sickness both..?

    February 10, 2011 at 00:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • almxx

      I hope that's the path to real peace.

      February 10, 2011 at 03:38 | Report abuse |
  13. Lori

    Why does Valentine's Day have to be associated with "romantic" love. I was married to a very abusive man for 22 years. I've been divorced for 7 1/2 years and couldn't be happier to be without a man in my life. My son is living with me right now and I couldn't be more at peace . I can't believe I stayed married for so long to this man. I find Valentine's Day a day to celebrate the love I have for my children, for my life, my precious dogs, and myself. It's all how a person wants to view it, if you want it to be a negative, sad day, it will be. If you want it to be a day of love for many things in your life, then it will be that too. If you don't have a significant other, so what? Go treat YOURSELF to your favorite candy, your favorite flowers and gifts and be grateful to be alive. Friends, family, pets, co workers, good neighbors, etc. are all a form of love. Let go of the whole deal of Valentine's being a day of "romantic" love. It's outdated and silly. Love is expressed in a million ways besides romantic love. Just enjoy Valentine's Day, with or without romance.

    February 10, 2011 at 00:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Lori

    To Skippy,
    I've been where you are and I understand. For me personally, since my divorce, I've been ill and I've had accidents, but guess what. I healed quicker and in a better frame of mind. I like knowing that I don't "need" a man anymore. Don't get me wrong, if the right guy comes into my life, that will be wonderful, but, I just am so grateful for so many things I didn't have while married. Complete privacy when I want it, not worrying about how I look on days when I just want to "hang out" at home, not worrying about some one else's moods, temperament, needs, etc., spending my money how and when I want without some man making me feel guilty, not worrying about the "state" of a relationship and how stable it is or isn't, just basically living life how I want without having to put up with a man's input. Frankly, I'll never get married again, but I would like to find the right guy to spend the rest of my life with, without marriage and without "rules". Either he trusts who and what I am and likes it, or he can get lost. Life is too short to waste in with people who restrict your life. Don't feel lonely, find things to be grateful for everyday and you will be surprised how you will begin to feel better and stronger each day. HAPPY Valentine's Day, YOU ARE STRONG, SPECIAL AND SHOULD LOVE YOURSELF AND BEING ALIVE!

    February 10, 2011 at 01:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Justina

      Hi, Lori. Thanks for your sharing, but you know it's woman's virtue to make sacrifice for her man and submit to him if he is worthy. Having "my free world" isn't really so valuable comaparing to having a worthy man on your side permanently. Questions are, where is man who provides and protects his woman and who includes her in his grand life plan? Where is woman who serves her man with grace and dignity and gives him godly, wise perspectives? I think today's women should display more purity and grace than indipentency and outer strength. Any and every selfishness from either side always makes our children victims.

      February 10, 2011 at 01:56 | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      Justina, the word 'sacrifice' keeps popping up in your posts. don't you think that if sacrifice has to be an ongoing theme in a relationship, you got it all wrong?

      February 10, 2011 at 11:36 | Report abuse |
  15. Juicy

    This will be my firstValentines Day without a lover it feels some what awkward but I am happy with my life overall and will be VERY good to myself on Valentines Day and show my love to others....Thats my plan to beat loneliness on Valentines Day:-)

    February 10, 2011 at 01:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. almxx

    It seems the answer is to have continuing love affairs, if you're a widow, or widower, as you get older. If you're married, just continue to love each other. Who could have guessed the solution would be so easy.?

    February 10, 2011 at 03:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Meghan

    Im celebrating my first valentines day as an engaged woman and theres nothing like the fufilling feeling of true love... but last year me and my single ladies had an anti vday celebration and bought each other flowers and gifts and drank wine all night! it was definently full of love and reminds you that you dont have to be in a relationship to have wonderfful loving relationships with those around you that are worth celebrating too!!

    February 10, 2011 at 07:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Zeppelin

      Good points, I agree with you.

      However, it's difficult to celebrate the relationships with those around you when they are all coupled, and wrapped up in each other. Not that I blame them – but it's the truth.

      February 10, 2011 at 09:31 | Report abuse |
  18. megan

    Lori, I have a similar story. I'm now widowed and will be celebrating Valentine's Day with chocolate and peace. It's the best feeling to want to go home and relax instead of dreading it. Some women I know would love to be divorced but they can't support themselves.

    February 10, 2011 at 07:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Amygdala

    It is just pathetic how many studies claim the genetics is the cause of behaviour, yet, the specific gene that is responsible is not named. If a gene causes loneliness, which gene is it? Or, the researchers offer some some convoluted theory which is no more than a guess.

    For decades researchers have claimed that just about every human problem (depression, addiction, anger, etc.) has a genetic cause. There is no conclusive evidence and what is a person supposed to do? If loneliness is a genetic problem then you cant change it. You behaviour is driven by prearranged molecules that you have no control over.

    Loneliness is a problem where people cant connect with others or society and they feel like they don't fit in with any group. There are many theories about what causes this to happen, but no one knows.

    February 10, 2011 at 07:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Justina

      Amy, if one has a privilege to worry for tomorrow's bread on the table literally, he or she hardly has room to feel lonely! Loneliness gets magnified when one is well-fed and there's nothing else to worry about. Life.

      February 10, 2011 at 07:55 | Report abuse |
  20. Slim

    Thank God for Steak & BJ day!

    February 10, 2011 at 10:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Jorge

    Not so fast, some relationships can add years to your life, others can rob you of your youth, your patience and your health. At 52, despite dealing with people who have ridden my last nerve for most of my life, I'm lucky to still have a full head of dark hair and a healthy heart. My secret recipe consists of a 'whatever' salad followed by a 'lalalaIcan'theara damnthingyousay' entree and 'don'tworrybehappy' pudding with 'don'tgetinmyface,go@#%$yourself' cream on top. When things don't seem to be working out between you and the testy, impossible-to-harmonize people around you, it works wonders, gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

    February 10, 2011 at 11:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. what the?

    "Loneliness gets magnified when one is well-fed and there's nothing else to worry about. Life."

    Uhh ... no actually loneliness is magnified when you are so damn busy you don't have time to do anything except stay busy. You spend all that busy time wishing you had someone to share that load with. Loneliness is worse when you have nothing else to worry about? What a pathetic statement. It demeans anyone who feels lonely, as if they simply have too much in their life and now they just want something else. Pathetic.

    February 10, 2011 at 11:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dan

      Agreed. Hear, hear.

      February 10, 2011 at 14:05 | Report abuse |
  23. Linda Fuller

    Linda...Read the whole thing...including all the comments...so true!

    February 10, 2011 at 11:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. shasays

    All these comments read like a Lifetime for women movie.

    February 10, 2011 at 12:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Lori

    Hello Megan,
    I'm glad to see that you have found the type of peace you are content with. I for one love knowing I am not accountable to any man for any thing. I'm with Tony, it's better to be alone than wishing you were alone. Now that I'm single, I am so aware of how many women are so very miserable in their relationship, whether it's straight or gay, and want out so badly but are "trapped" in the cycle of "sticking it out, for better or for worse". Ohhhh, what a sad way I lived and many now live. Happy Valentine's Megan, enjoy your chocolate and peace of mind, now, peace of mind is something you can't buy, it's priceless.

    February 10, 2011 at 13:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Cieje Valentine

    It could be worse.. You could have been BORN on Valentine's day to a single mother, being forced to spend money on HER on YOUR birthday EVERY year, and being perpetually single on every Feb14. Yeah, that's where my online alias is from.

    February 10, 2011 at 14:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Cynthia

    The very obvious conclusion is that HAPPY PEOPLE LIVE LONGER. Logically, people who consider themselves lonely are clearly not happy. When you're unhappy you become stressed bc of neurotransmitter and hormone shifts, which makes you physically weaker (already known). Who the heck funded this "research"? I think we could have reached the same conclusion talking to family, friends and a large number of people admitted to the hospital for inpatient care. Come on! Fund some PRACTICAL research.

    February 10, 2011 at 15:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Lori

    Oh Cieje, what a way to view your life. When I was young I used to WISH I had been born on Valentine's Day. When my mother was alive, I LOVED giving her gifts on Valentine's Day. I would have loved giving a gift to the woman who gave birth to me on Valentine's Day, a day associated with love and celebrated all over the world. As for being single, so what, who cares? You could very well be with someone that you were not happy with but still celebrated the day with just because it was expected. Try viewing your life in a more positive light, no matter what has happened in it, it's up to you and only you to find joy in your everyday life and on holidays. NO ONE can make you happy on any holiday, that has to come from your heart, to your heart. If you're not truly happy and at peace with yourself and your life, no one can create that for you.

    February 10, 2011 at 15:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cieje Valentine

      I very much appreciate your kind words, Lori. I was mostly venting. I came to terms with myself on many levels quite some time ago.. I have two female friends (sisters from other misters) who insist on "Abducting" me each year and treating me like a king.They drag me to a movie, stuff me silly at a restaurant of my choice, Force me to pick out a relatively expensive gift, and eat cake & candy till we nearly BURST. I know that I am loved and am loveABLE thanks to this yearly reminder. To have attracted these girls to myself, being the giant teddy bear they know me to be, I KNOW that I'll meet my perfect mate in due time. GODbless and thanks again.

      February 11, 2011 at 12:34 | Report abuse |
  29. ann wilson

    Lonliness is very real and it can lead to depression and low self esteem. But if you have the time, helping others is a
    real antidote for lonliness. Some hospitals have a program where you are needed to hold premie babies and interact
    with them. This has been found to help them gain weight. There are libraries that have programs to teach or tutor
    children to read. If you not much on kids, there are many ways you can volunteer to help adults. Even if it is just
    once a month. Or as they say, take a night class in a subject that interests you. Some times when we are left
    bitter and resentful by family, friends, and ex's–helping strangers can reconnect you to the love within you.
    Don't rule out animals. Taking care of a pet has held many people's lives together. There is an old lady across the
    street from me who is about 90 and walks her 3 little dogs. They get her up and going everyday!

    February 10, 2011 at 22:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Lori

    Cieje, I hope you have a wonderful Valentine's Day! I understand, sometimes we just need to vent. But, you're right, one day the right person will come along, when you least expect it. Keep the faith. Have a wonderful holiday and smile!

    February 11, 2011 at 18:21 | Report abuse | Reply

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