I can’t argue that you are made up of fish the same way I could argue that you are made up of bacteria. But fish does contain special fatty acids that your brain needs to function at its best and it contains them in a form that you can’t get from just any fish oil supplement. It’s time to get snobby about what you feed your brain…and this article will tell you why!Read More
Having social connections is what allows our species to thrive. Being lonely, or lacking a sense of meaningful social connection, is not only uncomfortable but also downright dangerous. As a result, the lonely state provides a stimulus to seek out beneficial connections and increases our sensitivity to potential threats . Our aging population possesses a combination of risk factors for loneliness, including widowhood, less education, increased financial stress, and a greater number of chronic health conditions .
Loneliness can have a significant impact on your health. Consider the stress being lonely places on your body. Instead of having a team you can trust to help you out and keep you safe, your body and brain have to stay on high alert to manage all the challenges that life presents. Aside from being unpleasant, being lonely is going to wear you out physically, mentally and emotionally.
Poor sleep quality
One of the most important aspects of health is sleep, and when your body is stressed sleep quality goes out the window. Interestingly enough, the lonely brain is more “awake”, or hypervigilant, during sleep. This makes evolutionary sense – if you don’t have people around to protect you from being eaten in your sleep then your sleep is going to be less restful . Strategies to make a person feel more protected while they sleep could include installing a security system or adopting a pet. These strategies might ameliorate the problem.
Elevated Blood Pressure
We often think of cardiovascular risk assessment in terms of lipid panels, diet, exercise and demographics. But loneliness may be one underappreciated risk factor in cardiovascular health. A lonely heart is under a lot more stress in terms of increased peripheral resistance and increased systolic blood pressure, even after controlling for other typical cardiovascular risk factors .
It is possible that loneliness affects diet and this in turn affects the health of your heart. However, as we discussed before, loneliness results in an overactive sympathetic system (always alert!). We cannot assume that relieving loneliness will correct pre-existing cardiovascular damage, but perhaps it could prevent the progression of heart disease .
Dementia & Decreased Cognition
Loneliness is associated with cognitive decline, such as impaired immediate and delayed recall, and is correlated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia . One proposed explanation for this effect is that loneliness is associated with increased stress and depression. Stress and depression in turn affect immune function and activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, leading to damaged neuronal networks [4,5].
Depression and depressive symptoms
There is a nuanced relationship between loneliness and future depressive symptoms. Yes, loneliness has been linked to future depressive symptoms in the older population. However, an Israeli study demonstrated that in the oldest of the older population loneliness no longer predicts depression . This could be because loneliness and depression in older populations are enhanced by the perception of a longer life expectancy . In essence, living longer is not something to look forward to when you are lonely. The longer you think you have left to live, the greater the risk for loneliness and depression. Further research is needed to determine if subjective life expectancy is a factor in Western cultures as well.
Even though being lonely does not entail the same threats in our modern society as it did years ago, our bodies are wired to respond to loneliness in ways to protect us in a vulnerable state. This affects our physical, emotional and mental well-being by putting us into a physically hypervigilant sympathetic state and leaving us to process social situations in an overly cautious, negative light.
This is only a small snapshot into the relationship between loneliness and well-being. As a society we need to better support the older generations at risk for loneliness and help them to maintain their spark and purpose in life.
Watch for the next post on how we can make a difference!
Cacioppo, J. T. & Cacioppo, S. Social relationships and health: The toxic effects of perceived social isolation. Soc. Personal. Psychol. Compass 8, 58–72 (2014).
Emerson, K. G. & Jayawardhana, J. Risk Factors for Loneliness in Elderly Adults. J. Am. Geriatr. Soc. 64, 886–887 (2016).
Hawkley, L. C., Thisted, R. A., Masi, C. M. & Cacioppo, J. T. Loneliness predicts increased blood pressure: 5-year cross-lagged analyses in middle-aged and older adults. Psychol. Aging 25, 132–41 (2010).
Boss, L., Kang, D.-H. & Branson, S. Loneliness and cognitive function in the older adult: a systematic review. Int. Psychogeriatrics 27, 541–553 (2015).
Zhong, B.-L., Chen, S.-L. & Conwell, Y. Effects of Transient Versus Chronic Loneliness on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: Findings From the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey. Am. J. Geriatr. Psychiatry 24, 389–398 (2016).
Bodner, E. & Bergman, Y. S. Loneliness and depressive symptoms among older adults: The moderating role of subjective life expectancy. Psychiatry Res. 237, 78–82 (2016).
Photo credit: Jilbert Ebrahim
This weekend as I looked up in awe at my brother’s new drone hovering 35 feet above us, I took a moment yet again to reflect on the miraculous advances technology has made in relatively short amounts of time. Although I’m not that old and therefore still subject to my friends’ “when I was growing up…” pre-technology horror stories I am still old enough to have used floppy disks to store homework on.
Indeed it was my original fascination with this technology that caused me to start my undergraduate education with my sights set on software engineering. That changed of course, but technology is still an incredible force within the healthcare field I am in. So much so that it could be considered a doctor-patient-information relationship rather than just the classic doctor-patient relationship.
Today, information is more readily available than ever before. People can order labs themselves, get their genome sequenced through companies such as 23andme and use Google, SNPedia, OMIM and Promethease to try to interpret the information they receive from these sources. All of a sudden everyone becomes his or her own doctor. This becomes both empowering and problematic.
It is nice to have the freedom to order your own labs even if just out of curiosity. Same thing with genome sequencing. Browsing through your SNPs is fun and can be informative. It might reveal some things you didn’t realize were problematic or it might confirm some lingering long-held suspicions. For example, when I looked through my SNPs and realized I was an overmethylator it made sense why I felt so horrible after getting intramuscular methylcobalamin (Vitamin B12) injections. It also allows me to look at my inherent risks for thyroid conditions, etc and to keep an eye on these over time. So definitely a few practical benefits aside from looking at what percent Norwegian or Navajo I am. Learning more about your health and being motivated to reach for your optimal state of well-being is admirable and to be encouraged.
However, there are a few important considerations if you do have a health concern and you are trying to order your own labs and interpret them. First of all, how do you know you are ordering the right labs? What if there are multiple factors at play? And even if you do interpret the results correctly, what will you do about those results? This is why it is very important to keep your physician involved, because they have trained for many years to address these questions.
And then with genetics, do you really want to know your risk alleles for certain health conditions? Now since breast cancer has been an uninvited guest in my family, I wanted to check my alleles to see if I had any that would significantly increase my risk of breast cancer. This is not something to be done lightly. Before I did this I had to consider whether I really wanted to know, how I would respond if I did have risk alleles, and if I wanted my family to know (of course I didn’t want them to, but I also have a mother and sister who could then potentially also have the same risk alleles if I had them).
So before embarking on this modern self-investigation take a moment to think about how having access to so much information might affect you. And if you do want to know, who will help you to minimize that risk or to take advantage of your beneficial alleles? What other factors might be at play that looking at a single SNP won’t tell you? Now this can be very useful, especially when nothing seems to be working or you really want to fine-tune your functioning. Or maybe in some cases there is potential for some rare condition. But combing through your SNPs on your own hoping to find a rare cause of a common problem is like digging into genealogy hoping to find royal blood in your lineage. It’s just not a good use of time unless you genuinely enjoy it and have loads of time.
We have every opportunity to take control of our own health and to learn how best to look after ourselves. This is very exciting and doing this with the guidance of a trusted physician who can provide insights you may not find on your own will only improve the process. In naturopathic medicine, “docere” (doctor as teacher) is a principle that promotes the sharing and understanding of information between doctor and patient. This is one of my favourite principles because if you can help a patient to understand what is happening, why it is happening and how what you are suggesting will provide a solution then the patient will be more motivated to stick with those suggestions. They will then be able to effect change in their lives that will enable them to be healthier and happier. Not only that, but they will be armed with the knowledge to make decisions about their health in the future that will prevent further problems.