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Loneliness Makes You Sick: Study

26 November 2015 11:25

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Scientists released a study shedding new light on how loneliness triggers physiological responses that can ultimately make us sick.

Researchers have long known the dangers of loneliness, but the cellular mechanisms by which loneliness causes adverse health outcomes have not been well understood. Now a team of researchers, including UChicago psychologist and leading loneliness expert John Cacioppo, has released a study shedding new light on how loneliness triggers physiological responses that can ultimately make us sick.

The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that loneliness leads to fight-or-flight stress signaling, which can ultimately affect the production of white blood cells.

The study examined loneliness in both humans and rhesus macaques, a highly social primate species.

Previous research from this group had identified a link between loneliness and a phenomenon they called “conserved transcriptional response to adversity” or CTRA. This response is characterized by an increased expression of genes involved in inflammation and a decreased expression of genes involved in antiviral responses. Essentially, lonely people had a less effective immune response and more inflammation than non-lonely people.

For the current study, the team examined gene expression in leukocytes, cells of the immune system that are involved in protecting the body against bacteria and viruses.

As expected, the leukocytes of lonely humans and macaques showed the effects of CTRA–an increased expression of genes involved in inflammation and a decreased expression of genes involved in antiviral responses. But the study also revealed several important new pieces of information about loneliness’ effect on the body.

The team plans to continue research on how loneliness leads to poor health outcomes and how these effects can be prevented in older adults.

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