Is loneliness dangerous?

Is loneliness dangerous?
Is loneliness dangerous?

Does loneliness have negative effects on your health? New Scientist looked into what science says about this.

About 25 to 30 percent of Dutch people experience moderate or strong loneliness. This is evident from measurements by CBS from 2019. These people feel that they have too few social contacts or that the relationships they have are not deep enough.

Loneliness occurs at all ages, but is most prevalent among the elderly. This is partly because older people experience more loss. Partners can die or deteriorate rapidly. And at some point, people in the broader social circle also disappear. In addition, older people also become physically and cognitively weaker, making it more difficult to enter into or maintain new relationships. This makes it almost impossible to get rid of loneliness from the age of 75, says sociologist Theo van Tilburg of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.


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Early death

An overview study by psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues shows that loneliness has negative consequences on health. People who are lonely are 26 percent more likely to die prematurely. That is comparable to the risk of death from obesity.

Loneliness in itself is not fatal. But it can contribute to processes that increase the risk of chronic diseases. For example, scientists link loneliness to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia and depression.

In addition, loneliness also makes people physically more vulnerable. This means that they do not necessarily develop diseases, but their physical health still deteriorates. This is evident from a recent overview study by epidemiologist Emiel Hoogendijk of the Amsterdam UMC and his colleagues. ‘In the elderly, for example, this may involve a decrease in muscle strength or weight loss,’ says Hoogendijk. These negative effects can begin as early as middle age.


It is not yet entirely clear how loneliness has so many negative consequences on physical health. It may have something to do with the role of loneliness in stress. ‘People are social beings. We need other people to deal with stress,” says Hoogendijk.

Increased stress levels have all kinds of negative effects in the body. ‘Mental stress also causes you to experience physical stress,’ says Van Tilburg. Several studies prove that loneliness affects the functioning of the immune system.

‘Because of that stress, lonely people also sleep worse and are more likely to exhibit unhealthy behavior,’ says Van Tilburg. For example, they eat less healthily, no longer have the energy to exercise or develop an addiction such as smoking more easily. This in turn has a negative impact on health.


When it comes to loneliness, it is better to prevent it than to cure it, says Van Tilburg. Tackling loneliness is not as simple as is often thought. ‘People who aren’t lonely are quick to say, ‘Go out. Make contacts. Get active.’ But we know that lonely people have a lot of problems with that.’ Easy solutions, such as organizing a bingo evening, therefore often have a disappointing effect.

So what is a good intervention? Both Hoogendijk and Van Tilburg admit that there is still too little knowledge about this. ‘There is a serious lack of good studies,’ says Hoogendijk.

Yet there is hope. Small studies show that you can change your situation, says Hoogendijk. Effective interventions do not just try to organize meeting opportunities, says Van Tilburg. They guide people long-term in making contacts and work on having realistic expectations. “Because it’s not like you immediately make friends after an interaction,” he says.

‘If people think they are lonely, or experience loneliness, it is important to talk to their GP or another care provider. There is always something that can be done that could possibly change the situation,” says Hoogendijk.

The article is in Dutch

Tags: loneliness dangerous


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