Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed an official “minister of loneliness” to the government.
It’s not as bizarre as one might think at first. In fact, experts who study the health effects of chronic loneliness are cheering the move.
Combating a disease whose cause isn’t so outwardly pernicious — like cigarette use or alcoholism — is expected to be a challenging task, but one scientists and doctors say is critical. Isolation from others makes us sick, and can cause direct, often deadly harm to our bodies.
“Social isolation is an independent contributor to death, and you can put that right up there with heart disease and cancer,” said Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health, in an interview.
“Loneliness can kill you.”
Steve Cole, the director of the UCLA Social Genomics Core Laboratory who studies the impact of loneliness on human health at a molecular level, agrees.
“The risk of death is on par with a really enthusiastic smoking habit or being overweight or obese,” Cole said in an interview.
The new ministerial assignment goes to Tracey Crouch, formerly the undersecretary for sport and civil society. Though the British government has been studying the public health problem for years, the new ministerial appointment continues the work of slain Parliament member Jo Cox, who promoted the need to address widespread societal loneliness. She was killed in 2016.
“Loneliness can kill you.”
Last year, the government’s Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness produced a report citing some unsettling realities: Nine million adults (about 14 percent of the population) are “often or always lonely”; 3.6 million people aged 65 and older say television is their main form of company; and one in 10 men won’t admit they are lonely.
Long-term or chronic isolation (think years, as opposed to the months of loneliness one might experience after moving somewhere new) is a difficult experience for humans. Simply put, we haven’t evolved to be alone.
“We are the most inherently social of all animals,” said Cole.
Consequently, the experience of isolation informs our minds that something is terribly wrong.
“That unpleasantness in our psyche signals in our brain that we are insecure and unsafe,” explained Cole. “We become deeply disturbed when there’s nobody else around or when we’re being ostracized or cast out of the tribe. These are threat signals.”
In turn, our bodies react to this heightened sense of threat, which activates an “anticipatory defense program,” in our bodies, he said. This is often called the “fight or flight response,” the type of automatic mode we’re thrust into during a perilous situation, like an earthquake, fire, or a car slamming on its brakes in front of us.
There are two ways this threat response hurts our bodies. First, we produce a wealth of molecules during these stressful periods, broadly called hyper-inflammatory molecules, which draw resources from our cells. This leaves us more vulnerable to viral infections.
“Nothing in the body comes for free,” explained Cole. “Our normal antiviral regime gets shut down or squashed,” he said.
Second, our body is designed to fight off infections, injury, or illness for short periods of time — not years, non-stop. However, chronic loneliness can sap the immune system.
“A defense program is meant to be run for a couple days a year,” said Cole. “But now we’re doing it 356 days a year — leaving the sirens on 24-7 — that produces bodies that just don’t work and feeds a long-term disease process.”
The specific, common killers for people who experience chronic loneliness are heart disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s.
“What they all have in common is inflammation acts like a fertilizer for them,” said Cole. And this hastens the disease process.
Scientists broadly agree on the severity of this toxic disease mechanism. “The impact of loneliness is very well known and very serious,” said Klapow, a clinical psychologist. Klapow is encouraged to see the problem being seriously addressed outside the realms of research and medicine.
“I think what’s most courageous and assertive of the British government is to weave [loneliness] into a government health and public policy decision rather than it being solely a medical health issue. That’s unique and important,” said Klapow.
But the minister of loneliness faces significant challenges.
“Chronic loneliness is a tough nut to crack,” says Cole, noting that it requires altering deeply ingrained mindsets.
As minister, Crouch has been given an opportunity to combat this sort of social isolation on a societal scale. Such an endeavor is new and will likely generate a variety of proposals — some of which will work, and others that likely won’t. But scientists say the problem must be addressed.
“Loneliness equals threat,” said Cole. “We can’t live a life of quiet desperation.”