The Aging of Loneliness

Thursday, August 09, 2007

By Wray Herbert

Many poets and philosophers confront loneliness as an essential and inevitable fact of human existence, and indeed this particular brand of aching appears to afflict everyone: children, adolescents, adults, the old and very old. But why does the loneliness of old age seem somehow different, sadder and more painful? Is it the social isolation that so often accompanies it, or perhaps the physical wear and tear of the twilight years?

Scientists have wondered about this as well. Loneliness may be universal and constant through the lifespan, but isn’t it possible that the subjective experience of loneliness in old age is somehow unique, and more harmful? Two University of Chicago psychologists have been trying to disentangle social isolation, loneliness, and the physical deterioration and diseases of aging, right down to the cellular level.

Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo suspected that while the toll of loneliness may be mild and unremarkable in early life, it accumulates with time. If that’s so, they say, one would expect the cumulative effects of loneliness in old age to hasten disease by contributing to such things as stress, coping, rest and recuperation, and more. To test this idea, the scientists have been studying two large groups of people for many years, the first college-age and the second in their late 50s. This allows them to compare the untoward health consequences of loneliness in youth and old age.

Their findings, reported in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, are revealing. Consider stress, for example. The more years you live, the more stressful experiences you are going to have: new jobs, marriage and divorce, parenting, financial worries, illness. It’s inevitable. And indeed when the psychologists looked at the lives of the middle-aged and old people in their study, they found that the lonely ones did not differ from the others in this regard. They did, however, differ in how they perceived these events. They recalled more childhood adversity (with more enduring pain) and identified more of the normal rites of passage as sources of chronic stress in their lives. Faced with the same challenges, the lonelier people appear more helpless and threatened. And ironically, they are less apt to actively seek help when they are stressed out.

Over time the lonely pay a clear physiological price for their lousy coping skills. The psychologists measured something called TPR, for “total peripheral resistance.” This is a measure of how much the small arteries constrict and hamper blood flow; the end result of too much constriction is high blood pressure, a risk factor for stroke and other disorders. Interestingly, they found that lonely young adults had elevated TPR, even though their blood pressure was normal. By their 50s, however, lonely people were more likely to have high blood pressure as well. What this means is that, as the natural resilience of youth declines, the cumulative toll of loneliness can turn a relatively benign vascular symptom into a life-threatening condition.

Loneliness wreaks havoc with the body’s basic stress response system as well. Hawkley and Cacioppo took urine samples from both the lonely and the more contented volunteers, and found that the lonely ones had more of the hormone epinephrine flowing in their bodies. Epinephrine is one of the body’s “fight or flight” chemicals, and high levels indicate that lonely people go through life in a heightened state of arousal. As with blood pressure, this physiological toll became more apparent with aging. Since the body’s stress hormones are intricately involved in fighting inflammation and infection, it appears that loneliness contributes to the wear and tear of aging through this pathway as well.

There is more bad news. When we experience the depletion caused by stress, our bodies normally rely on restorative processes like sleep to shore us up. But when the researchers monitored the younger volunteers’ brain activity during sleep, they found that the lonely nights were disturbed by many “micro awakenings.” That is, they appeared to sleep as much as the normal volunteers, but their sleep was of poorer quality. Not surprisingly, the lonelier people reported more daytime dysfunction. Since sleep tends to deteriorate with age anyway, the added hit from loneliness is probably compromising this natural restoration process even more.

Loneliness is not the same as solitude. Some people are just fine with being alone, and some even see solitude as an important path to spiritual growth. But for many, social isolation and physical aging make for a toxic cocktail. A 1985 survey found that the typical American had three confidants; in 2004, that number had dropped to zero. That’s sobering arithmetic for our rapidly aging society.

For more insights in human behavior, visit “We’re Only Human . . .”

posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:14 AM


At 6:43 PM , Blogger Cassandra_Moderna said...

I am sorry, but this is bad arithmetic altogether. What do you mean by "typical" American? How can the number of confidants be zero? That would mean that no typical American had a confident. If you had said that the average number of confidants for a "typical" American (whatever that is) is less than 1, then that would make sense, unless there is no such thing as a typical American, in which case the average number of confidants would be undefined. Please correct this post, would you?

At 9:28 AM , Blogger Wray said...

To clarify, here is a direct quote from the Hawkley and Cacioppo article: "The modal respondent [in the General Social Survey] reported three confidants in 1985 and no confidants in 2004."

At 8:03 PM , Blogger Cassandra_Moderna said...

The quote from the article is not placed in context, so it is not possible to make any sort of inference about the "typical" (average) respondent. Out of 100 respondents, you could have 30 with no confidant, 25 with 1, 25 with 2, and 20 with 3, or any other variation so long as the zero-confidant respondents had the highest frequency. The mode need not be near the average, at all, although very often it is. Surely, in that article, there are data which more clearly demonstrate a dramatic decline, if that is what you are getting at. I am picking on this point because I absolutely enjoy all of your blog posts. I think that they are wonderfully written and extremely interesting. But, this bad math business reminds me of a peer-reviewed article I once read wherein the author expressed his puzzlement that as his sample size increased there was less variation in the mean. I mean, really.....

At 3:08 PM , Blogger vivitura said...

Question? Is it healthier to be old single and lonely or married and bitter but not lonely?

At 11:34 PM , Blogger NeedleNoz said...

What about people who are in relationships but still remain lonely and isolated? This may seem a dichotomy, but one can feel loneliness in a crowd. I think this might be more acute when with family. . .my opinion.