Perceived social isolation or the “feeling of loneliness” is strongly linked to increased risk of chronic disease, a new study suggests. Published on Nov 23, 2015, the research provides a growing understanding of the consequences of loneliness to physical and psychological health.

The study was conducted to 141 older adults, aged 50 to 68, by the University of Chicago, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, Davis. The subjects’ blood and urine samples were analysed to measure stress hormones and examine gene expression in leukocytes, the immune cells that ward off infections. Twenty-six per cent of the participants were classified as chronically lonely.

The feeling of loneliness triggers conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA), making lonely people’s immune system weaker and more prone to inflammation compared to the non-lonely subjects.

Prolonged experiences of loneliness lead to a greater impact CTRA has on the genes related to white blood cells and inflammation. CTRA decreases the genetic expression of white blood cells while simultaneously increasing the genetic expression of inflammation occurring within the body’s cells.

This means that the body’s lessened ability to protect itself from diseases and cellular deterioration could be deadly. People will be more vulnerable to health problems that will worsen in time.

The researchers also analysed the white blood cell production in rhesus macaque monkeys, Medical News Today reports. They found that monkeys exhibited the same increase in CTRA brought by social isolation. The isolated monkeys were also infected with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), the equivalent to HIV in humans, in a separate experiment. Results show that the virus grew faster in the monkeys’ blood and brain.

The team asserted that further studies must be undertaken to determine the link between self-preservation trigger and physiological responses. They plan to continue investigating more about how loneliness leads to poor health and how these effects can be prevented.

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