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There are physical burdens to loneliness, Mason psychology experts say

May 16, 2019

Jerome Short

Besides being an emotional burden, loneliness can lead to poorer physical health, experts from George Mason University’s Psychology Department said.

High blood pressure, heart disease, dementia and depression are among the physical ailments that could result, and it’s worth paying attention to. A recent report published in Annals of Family Medicine showed loneliness in the United States affects about a third of people older than 45, and also those who are 18 to 24.

How can loneliness impact the body?

“Our brains influence both our physical and psychological health,” associate professor of psychology Jerome Short said.

“There are at least two pathways from loneliness to poorer health,” said James Maddux, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and a senior scholar at Mason’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. “First, loneliness is closely linked to depression, and depression can diminish our motivation to engage in healthy behaviors such as exercising and eating a healthy diet.”

“Second, some evidence suggests that loneliness and depression can weaken the immune system, making people more susceptible to illness,” Maddux said.

Despite an increasingly connected world with smartphones and social media, research from the global health service company Cigna depicts loneliness as a nationwide epidemic.

James Maddux

“Seeing smiles, hearing kind words and experiencing loving touch from close others reduces our loneliness,” Short said. “Loneliness appears to intensify in societies with increasing technology because some of us have less physical closeness with valued others and spend time communicating in less satisfying ways.”

“It’s these real-life connections that prevent loneliness,” Maddux said. “The superficial ‘friending’ of and by people on Facebook and other platforms doesn’t seem to have the same power.”

To combat loneliness, Short and Maddux advised connecting with people in person, as well as expressing gratitude, practicing more optimistic thinking and not comparing one’s life to another’s.

If people implemented these strategies, their health could improve, Short said. But according to Maddux, there’s no guarantee because the research isn’t definitive. 

Even so, “Loneliness is so bad for your mental health that learning to be less lonely is itself a worthwhile goal even if it doesn’t improve your physical health,” Maddux said.

Jerome Short can be reached at 703-993-1368 or jshort@gmu.edu.

James Maddux can be reached at jmaddux@gmu.edu.

​For more information, contact Mariam Aburdeineh at 703-993-9518 or maburdei@gmu.edu

About George Mason 

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 37,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility. For more information visit gmu.edu.