Social disconnection lifting disease and dementia

Loneliness leading to disease and mental illness - Newsreel
The rising tide of social disconnection is being described as a public health crisis. | Photo: Fizkes (iStock)

The rising tide of loneliness in society is increasing heart disease, stroke and dementia. United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has described the situation as a “public health crisis”.

Researchers from the Penn State College of Health and Human Development have published new research showing that even short-term loneliness can negatively impact health.

The work, published in the latest Health Psychology journal, found that loneliness could lead to negative health symptoms for people even if they did not generally identify as lonely, or typically experience loneliness.

“People who experience more temporary feelings of loneliness or have a lot of variability in their feelings of loneliness are likely to have daily health issues related to loneliness, including general fatigue, headaches and nausea,” the research report said.

The research backs a 2023 report from Dr Murthy that said people who frequently felt lonely were more likely than others to develop depression and other mental health challenges.

Loneliness and insufficient social connection also led to a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease, a 32 percent increased risk of stroke and a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia in older adults.

The Penn State College study involved data from 1538 participants in the National Study of Daily Experiences (NSDE). It focused on respondents between the ages of 35 and 65 years. The assessments were performed twice, 10 years apart.

“From this data, researchers found that when participants were less lonely on average, and on days when loneliness was lower than a person’s average, they had fewer and less severe physical health symptoms,” the study report said.

“Additionally, participants who were more stable in loneliness across the eight days had less severe physical health symptoms.”

NSDE lead David Almeida said the findings suggested that day-to-day dynamics of loneliness could be crucial in understanding and addressing the health effects.

“Increasing feelings of social connection even for one day could result in fewer health symptoms on that day,” he said.

“Such a daily focus offers a manageable and hopeful micro-intervention for individuals living with loneliness.”

Study lead author Dakota Witzel said said a lot of previous research focussed on loneliness as a “binary trait” – you were either lonely or not.

“But based on our own anecdotal lives, we know that’s not the case. Some days are worse than others – even some hours,” Dr Witzel said.

“If we can understand variations in daily loneliness, we can begin to understand how it affects our daily and long-term health.”

More details can be found on the Penn State University website.