The silent epidemic of loneliness

It's a bigger risk factor for disease than anxiety or depression, one researcher says

Loneliness is generally thought of as an emotional state—but research suggests it has a biological component that can significantly harm your health, Brian Resnick writes for Vox

Psychologists often say that our existence as "social animals"—being able to "live, work, and cooperate in groups"—is "the key to our survival," Resnick writes. "But it comes with a tradeoff. Companionship is an asset for human survival, but its mirror twin, isolation, can be toxic."

Studies have found a link between loneliness and heart disease, for instance. And "a 2015 meta-review of 70 studies showed that loneliness increases the risk of your chance of dying by 26 percent," Resnick writes.

Steve Cole, a genetics researcher at University of California, Los Angeles, says "social isolation is far and away the strongest social risk factor out there." But the big question is why.

The biology of loneliness

In 2007, Cole and colleagues published a small study of 14 people that hinted at some answers. The study found that people who suffered from chronic loneliness had cells that were in a chronic "state of fear," Resnick writes.

Specifically, the genes in the cells of lonely people that regulate inflammation were "turned on to a degree not seen in non-lonely participants," Resnick writes. And according to Cole, chronic inflammation is linked to cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer. "That provides one reasonable biological explanation for why [lonely people] might be at an increased risk for these diseases," he explains.

The effect on students

According to a recent survey for the Canadian National College Health Assessment, college students are especially susceptible to loneliness. Out of 43,000 Canadian college students, more than 66% reported feeling "very lonely" within the year prior to the study, and 33% "felt very lonely" within the two weeks prior to the study.

Kevin Settee, the president of the student association at the University of Winnipeg (UWinnipeg), explains the phenomenon: "You're in classrooms, then you have to go home and study, and you've got to do your research and write your papers, and usually a lot of that happens in isolation... It can get lonely."

Teach your students resilience

Fighting loneliness

Luckily for the lonely, other studies by Cole and colleagues have found that the physical effects of loneliness abate when loneliness recedes.

On college campuses, student organizations aim to build inclusive networks for lonely students. Jan Byrd, the director of UWinnipig's wellness and student life program, says "We know that students are more likely to stay here and persist and do well in their studies if they have a network of supports, so we try and create many opportunities so people can make a network and make connections on campus so that things don't hit a crisis" (Beaudette, CBC News, 9/9/16; Resnick, Vox, 1/30). 

International students may feel especially isolated—here's how you can help them

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