Loneliness is a killer: how loneliness affects our physical and mental health

The singer Seal once sang loneliness as the killer. In this blog, we discussed just how detrimental loneliness can be to us as human beings.

In the UK to date, there are approximately 800,000 people living on their own. Their isolation may be by design, necessity, or loss of a loved one through bereavement, or the breakup of a relationship. In addition unseen factors such as a shifting workforce, and working from home which has become more prevalent in the UK today. All of which can be contributing factors to people feeling more isolated and lonely.

Certainly, loneliness is on the increase within society.   In parallel with these facts and figures, how does loneliness affect  human beings? In a recent article, in New Scientist magazine written by journalist Moya Sharner. Sharner,  talks about the effects of loneliness. Firstly, how loneliness changes the neural network within the brain. A particularly interesting point raised in the article is research carried out by Dr John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago suggesting  that the human psyche is wired to be gregarious and isolation and loneliness is contrary  to our human nature.

Dr Cacioppo’s research suggests that loneliness changes the way that we interact with others; effectively, causing us to become more isolated. Not only are the effects of loneliness neurological there are also physiological effects. Researchers discovered, that, loneliness, if left to continue, can have a social psychological effect on society and be as detrimental to public health as smoking or obesity. Prof Stephen Cole of the University of California, Los Angeles studied the effects of environment on our genes effectively what Dr Coles discovered was that loneliness “can be the most environmentally damaging condition we as human beings can encounter.”(Sharner, 2017)


An interesting fact to emerge from Dr Cacioppo’s research is that loneliness is more of a subjective experience, rather than being on your own. Loneliness has little to do with having few friends or no friends or being socially isolated; loneliness is more the felt sense. Dr Cacioppo will have a sense of feeling less than the people around him, beings surrounded by people has nothing to do with the feeling of loneliness.

It has been known for some time, that people who are physically alone, often, have bad health but Cacioppo team has now discovered that the feeling of being isolated can be just as detrimental to physical health.

A meta-analysis carried out using information from 150 studies uncovered that poor quality of social relationships can have the same negative effects on health as smoking, alcohol or obesity. In fact; loneliness increases early mortality rates by something like 26% according to Cacioppo’s research. Dr Cacioppo commented that “loneliness is about the same as living with chronic obesity.”(Sharner, 2017).

Cacioppo’s team was to hypothesise that one of the behaviours lonely people have is depressed willpower. Cacioppo’s team found that people are more likely to indulge in self-defeating or negative behaviour; such as, choosing a bad diet avoiding exercise; thus increasing their sense of social isolation thus all of which have drastic side-effects regarding increasing risk of mental health problems such as anxiety depression and eating disorders.

Another point raised by joint research carried out by both Coles and Cacioppo’s team’s was that of how loneliness affects the immune system. The research pointed to an increase in information within people who are disenfranchised and lonely.; Inflammation has been linked to cancer, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.


In subsequent blogs we will be looking at the effects of loneliness and how social media has a role to play in people’s feeling of social isolation. Look out for the next blog.







Sharner, M. (2017). New Scientist. [Well-being]. Loneliness in the crowd (22 July 2017), 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35.