Loneliness and Health

We have long known that there exists a strong link between pain and depression. These two states have a number of associated symptoms in common. For example, each tends to be associated with sleep disturbance, decreased energy, and difficulty concentrating. In a study published in a recent issue of the journal Health Psychology, researchers1 examined risk factors associated with these conditions. Based on an extensive review of recent research the investigators determined that pain, depression and fatigue co-occur at a greater frequency than would be expected by chance. They concluded that pain, depression and fatigue should be considered a symptom cluster. In other words, if an individual reports one of these conditions, there is a high likelihood that he/she is experiencing the other two as well. Not only do pain, depression and fatigue co-occur in a wide array of health conditions, they also share a common biological mechanism.

The investigators conducted two studies aimed at identifying common risk factors that are predictive of this symptom cluster. In light of previous research findings that the quality of our relationships has a marked impact on our health the investigators elected to examine the relationship between loneliness and the symptom cluster of pain, depression and fatigue. In the first study they followed a group of cancer survivors for a period of two years after the end of their treatment. Participants completed measures that assessed loneliness, depression, fatigue, and pain at several time points over the course of the two-year period. Tin the second study similar measures were employed but by participants that were free of illness. These were older adults who were caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease. Both studies included comparison group comprising individuals that were illness free and were not caring for an ill spouse.

The results revealed that loneliness was indeed a significant risk factor for developing the concurrent symptom cluster of pain, depression and fatigue. Loneliness predicted the co-occurrence of these three symptoms to a much greater degree than any one of the symptoms alone or two of them in combination.

More generally, loneliness has been found to be a significant risk factor for ill-health. Intimate connections are not only a means of making life pleasant, they are a means of enhancing health and protecting against illness. In a world that is increasingly “wired” where much of our communication occurs in brief text messages and emails, it is essential that we look for opportunities to deepen intimacy and meaningful connection with those around us.

 

1Jaremka, L.M., Andridge, R.R., Fagundes, C.P, Alfana, C.M. et al. (2014) Pain, depression, and fatigue: Loneliness as a longitudinal risk factor. Health Psychology, 33(9), 948-957.

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