Summary: Researchers discuss the harmful psychological, physical and economic impact of loneliness.
They say you can’t put a price on friendship, but loneliness costs Australians $2.7 billion a year according to a report by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre. It is an epidemic that has grown steadily during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the start of the pandemic, feelings of loneliness have increased across Australia. Fortunately, residents of Western Australia were feeling relatively well. We had the second highest score for “social connectedness”, just behind the Australian Capital Territory. In contrast, the states of Queensland and South Australia had the lowest scores for social connectedness.
The term “loneliness” itself is only a few hundred years old. The negative connotations attached to loneliness did not appear in literature until the end of the 18th century.
Although the word is relatively new, it is difficult to say when the emotional experience of loneliness became common. In Shakespeare All’s well That ends well, loneliness merges with lovesickness. In HamletOphelia may have drowned because of loneliness.
Loneliness is mentioned in the ancient dream story D’harawal Bah’naga and Mun’dah (The Goanna and the Black Snake) – told by Sydney botanist Frances Bodkin.
“Because of his bad temper, he [BAH’NAGA] WAS A VERY LONELY MAN, AND A WOMAN HAD NEVER SAYED SWEET WORDS TO HIM.
So, have we placed modern emotions in ancient tales or have community cultures also suffered from loneliness?
THE GENDER GAP IN SOLITUDE
In Australia, the economic cost of loneliness is higher for women than for men.
Curtin University Associate Professor of Economics Astghik Mavisakalyan reports on the economic impacts of loneliness. She says it’s hard to pinpoint why women feel lonelier than men.
“It’s likely that there are multiple and complex reasons behind gender gaps in loneliness,” Astghik says.
“Data on loneliness is self-reported. Women may simply be less stigmatized and more comfortable reporting that they feel lonely.
“BUT IT IS ALSO POSSIBLE THAT WOMEN ARE RAISE WITH HIGHER EXPECTATIONS OF SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS. THEY MAY BE MORE PROPOSED TO FEEL ALONE IF THESE CONDITIONS ARE NOT MET.
Astghik says one factor may be that men have more opportunities to socialize through work. This often happens during years when many women stay home to care for their children.
According to the study, Australian women are more likely to feel lonely at age 17. And while reports of loneliness decline in adulthood, they suddenly increase for women over 65.
As for Australian men, reports of loneliness peak around age 50.
WHAT IS SOLITUDE LIKE?
When we experience a high level of momentary loneliness, it prompts the body to release more cortisol. And prolonged feelings of loneliness are correlated with higher average cortisol levels.
Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, prepares your body for a fight or flight response. It triggers your body to produce more glucose for more energy. This increased stress and unpleasant feelings associated with loneliness can have two effects.
For a social species like us, being alone means being vulnerable to attack. The fight or flight response can prepare us for this attack. Second, the emotional pain associated with loneliness gives us a biological thirst to connect with others.
This leads to a phenomenon that Dr. Tim Dean describes as an “evolutionary lag”. This mismatch occurs when behaviors that evolution has ingrained in us for survival become unhealthy in modern society. For example, our thirst for carbohydrates has turned into an epidemic of obesity.
THE PHYSICAL IMPLICATIONS
The 2018 Australian Loneliness Report found that 25% of Australians feel lonely, while 30% feel they don’t have a group of friends.
So how does this emotional experience impact our physical health? Loneliness is correlated with a range of health problems. It is linked to cognitive decline (about a 2% decrease in IQ over time) and an increased risk of dementia.
In fact, the majority of the estimated $2.7 billion price tag is the result of medical costs associated with declining health.
But do chronic diseases cause loneliness or does loneliness simply increase the risk of disease?
Professor Tegan Cruwys researches community psychology and mental health at the Australian National University. She says they are distinct phenomena, which are often caused by similar social factors.
“The overlap between people who experience depression and loneliness speaks to the fact that the social ills that lead to the experience of loneliness – exclusion, discrimination and disadvantage – are also key determinants of clinical depression. “
Astghik’s research suggests that loneliness is likely to lead to poor health outcomes and behaviors.
“More than half of women and men aged 65 who feel lonely most of the time report poor health,” says Astghik.
“[This is] about twice the rate of those who do not feel lonely.
Chronic loneliness triggers behavioral changes and triggers the immune system’s inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation contributes to a range of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and heart disease.
Tegan and Astghik say the best way to beat loneliness is to participate in a community. If individualism helped create the loneliness epidemic, rediscovering our communities can stop it.
About this loneliness research news
Author: Thomas Raven
Contact: Thomas Crow – Particle
Image: Image is in public domain