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Loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day

By Kelly Klund, LPN
Resourse Nurse, Empira

You have held on through this pandemic and tried to do the right things: you get eight hours of sleep a night, you eat your bright green and orange vegetables, you drink eight glasses of water a day, and you hold doors open for strangers and then POW!!!!!!! You read a blog and learn that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. As a former smoker I can tell you that smoking 15 cigarettes a day makes you feel like garbage. As a person who was separated from many of the people who are important to me during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic I can tell you that felt like “garbage” too. I get the parallel, but I don’t think that you need me to tell you that the loneliness we have all suffered over the last year because of the lockdowns and quarantines has taken its toll on our mind, body and spirits.

Empira dug into the effects of loneliness and learned some startling facts about the price we pay when we are lonely. The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaques in our arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promotes inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease (Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks, 2019). If we experience prolonged periods of loneliness we are more at risk for poor decision making, depression, anxiety, at a higher risk for stroke, we have higher rates cardiovascular impairment, more complaints of chronic pain, and a tendency to fatigue more easily. There is a 50% increased risk to develop dementia and a 26% increase in mortality. Loneliness can kill us, loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day!

Here is the interesting thing about loneliness, it is subjective. Alone ≠ loneliness. According to Cacioppo, loneliness is defined as a state of mind characterized by a dissociation between what an individual wants or expects from a relationship and what that individual experiences in that relationship.

Before we can understand the totality of the impact that loneliness has had on us it is important that we understand the different types of loneliness that we may have been feeling:

  • Personal or intimate loneliness is the absence of a significant person (spouse/ partner, pet) who provides emotional support and affirms one’s value as a person. Did you have to quarantine in your home away from your loved ones? Was it hard?
  • Relational loneliness is the absence of a sympathy group. This is usually about 15-50 people who regularly interact with one another. Examples: Card group, prayer group, immediate family, coworkers. This is a group that you meet with who are going through the same things that you are. Did you cancel family gatherings or suddenly start working from home?
  • Collective loneliness is the absence of a network. Your network is made up of 150-1500 people, who provide support just by being together as part of the same group. Examples: Church family, extended family, organizational memberships. Did your church stop in-person services, did your concert or sporting event tickets get cancelled?

In order to avoid some of the negative mind, body and spirit risks associated with loneliness we must first do some quiet, introspective evaluation. Where in our lives have our expectations about our relationships not been met, either because of forced distance from lockdown or quarantine, or because of other factors in our lives that may have existed or been exacerbated because of Covid?

Knowledge is power, and now that we have learned about the different types of loneliness we may be experiencing it is important that we see some ways that we may respond to address them.

  • Personal or intimate loneliness – what is the “Next best thing”? Can you hug a pillow with your loved ones perfume or cologne?
  • Relational loneliness – Zoom happy hours have replaced the after work get together, and many movie streaming companies have develop the ability to have “watch parties” so people can watch movies together, but from their separate homes. With the CDC relaxing guidelines, is there are small group of your friends and family that can now safely gather?
  • Collective loneliness – Can you join in online events? Most of our Church services are now streamed, many community organizations have moved their meetings to ZOOM or “live” broadcasts. I personally, am much more likely to attend services at home, on the couch in my PJ’s than I was before Covid when services were in person. Some of my favorite performers have hosted free online concerts that can be cast to your living room television and although not in person, I can watch along with other people like we were all together in an arena, without the long drive home.

Addressing your loneliness may require a bit of creativity. Just like many smokers ditched that nasty habit to better their health, I challenge you to take care of your mind, body and spirit and tap into your creativity to connect with the things and people that are important to you.

Cacioppo, S., Grippo, A. J., London, S., Goossens, L., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2015). Loneliness. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 238-249.
Galambos, C., & Lubben, J. (2020). Social isolation and loneliness in older adults: A national academies of sciences, engineering, and medicine report. Innovation in Aging, 4(Supplement_1), 713-713.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., & Layton, J. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. SciVee.
O’Donnell, E. [Woman on window ledge with cigarette].
Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks. (2019). US Department of Health and Human Services – NIH National Institute on Aging.