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Tuesday 25th October 2016

Loneliness is bad for your health

13th September 2007

A new study has shown a certain genetic profile in people who experience feelings of social isolation.

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The study, carried out by scientists at UCLA and published in Genome Biology, found that genes with links to the immune system and inflammation in the body were more active in people who reported themselves to be lonely.

The findings back up earlier studies which have also pointed to a relationship between a lack of social support and illness.

Researchers said the study showed the the biological impact of social isolation reached down into some of the body's most basic internal processes.

The quality of contact with others was also shown to be more important than the size of a social network.

A recent study in the Netherlands involving 8,000 twins has also pointed to this connection, but the UCLA team were the first to look at the phenomenon in terms of the human genome.

Fourteen volunteers were assessed for their level of social interaction using a scoring system. Genetic activity in their white blood cells was then monitored and analysed in comparison with those who scored very differently.

Certain genes were 'over-expressed' in the volunteers with low levels of social interaction. In particular they were found to be the genes that take care of immune system mechanisms like inflammation, which can be harmful if overstimulated.

However, genes thought to be important in fighting viruses and producing immune antibodies were less active compared with the non-lonely volunteers.

Team leader Steven Cole said the findings provided molecular targets for efforts to block the adverse heath effets of social isolation.

He added that feelings of social isolation were more influential than age, wealth or overall health status of the people involved.

At the level of gene expression, he said, it wasn't how many people in a person's network that mattered, but how many people they had felt very close to over a long period of time.

The gene profile he identified might help doctors work out whether therapies to ease loneliness were effective, he added.

Experts studying the biological effects of psychological states said the study was plausible, and addressed a known link between a lack of social support and ill-health.


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