Monday, March 9, 2009

Isolation becoming big health hazard


By Katherine SeligmanSan Francisco Chronicle Friday, Mar 6, 2009

You may worry about your waistline or pack-a-day smoking habit, but psychologists say there is a less recognized yet significant health hazard facing Americans: loneliness.


They could have more friends than ever online but, on average, Americans have fewer intimates to confide in than they did a decade ago, according to one study. Another found that 20 percent of all individuals are, at any given time, unhappy because of social isolation, according to University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo.
And, frankly, they’d rather not talk about it.


“People come into my office and say, ‘I’m depressed or obsessive.’ They don’t say, ‘I’m lonely,’ ” said Jacqueline Olds, a psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and co-authored “The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21st Century.”


“People are so embarrassed about being lonely that no one admits it. Loneliness is stigmatized, even though everyone feels it at one time or another.”


Olds wrote the book with her husband, Richard Schwartz, because, she said, she wanted to bring loneliness “out of the closet.” The two were struck by findings from the General Social Survey (conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago), showing that people reported having fewer intimate friends in 2004 than they had in 1985.


When asked how many people they could confide in, the average number declined over that same time period from three to two. In 2004, almost a quarter of those surveyed said they had no one to discuss important matters with in the past six months; in 1985, only 7 percent were devoid of close confidantes.


“Loneliness has a terrible reputation in this country,” Olds said. “It’s a problem not just with a few people without social skills. It’s not synonymous with being a loser.”


Independent, busy peopleWhy are we growing lonelier? Olds said it’s partly due to the American notion of independence that makes people not want to appear needy. They may feel alone, but they assume neighbors and friends are similarly busy and wouldn’t want to be bothered.
She also points to what she calls “the cult of busyness.”


In an era of frantic pace and multitasking, people feel they should always be accomplishing something. They work long hours and then, in their limited spare time, they work more — catching up on e-mail, doing the laundry, going to the gym. Socializing often comes last.


But humans are not wired to live alone, researchers say. The impulse for social connection — though it is stronger in some people than others — is rooted in the basic urge to survive.The need is so great, says Cacioppo, that it is reflected in our neural wiring. Most neuroscientists agree, he said, that it was the need to process social cues that led to the expansion of the cortical mantle of the brain.


In “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection,” which he co-authored last year, he wrote, “In other words, it was the need to deal with other people that, in large part, made us who and what we are today.”


Loneliness, Cacioppo explained in an interview, has more in common with hunger, thirst and pain than it does with mental illness. It signals that something is wrong and needs to be corrected.

Cacioppo’s research has shown that lonely people have more “micro-­awakenings” during sleep, leading to greater fatigue, which in turn can affect cognitive thinking. Other studies have found that people who feel lonely report more sources of stress in their lives, which can affect long-term health.


Chronic stress is associated with higher risk of cardiovascular disease and immune system disorders.


1 comment:

Tina Hagen said...

Loneless is sad but some people learned to love to be alone. And that some people were hurt by others and maybe thats why they become lonely. We should care about other people's feelings and to try to be more human and maybe in that moment we can say that we are humans.