Being Lonely Can Affect Your Immune System
January 20, 2013

Loneliness, Like Stress, Could Impact a Person’s Immune System

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Feelings of loneliness could be hazardous to your health, causing an immune system reaction similar to those associated with high stress levels, researchers from the Ohio State University (OSU) claim in a new study.

Lead author Lisa Jaremka, a postdoctoral fellow at the OSU Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, and colleagues discovered that people who were more isolated demonstrated signs of elevated latent herpes virus reactivation, as well as an increase in the production on inflammation-related proteins when confronted with acute stress than those who were less reclusive or secluded.

“These proteins signal the presence of inflammation, and chronic inflammation is linked to numerous conditions, including coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer's disease, as well as the frailty and functional decline that can accompany aging,” the university explained in a statement Saturday. “Reactivation of a latent herpes virus is known to be associated with stress, suggesting that loneliness functions as a chronic stressor that triggers a poorly controlled immune response.”

“It is clear from previous research that poor-quality relationships are linked to a number of health problems, including premature mortality and all sorts of other very serious health conditions. And people who are lonely clearly feel like they are in poor-quality relationships,” Jaremka added. “One reason this type of research is important is to understand how loneliness and relationships broadly affect health. The more we understand about the process, the more potential there is to counter those negative effects — to perhaps intervene. If we don't know the physiological processes, what are we going to do to change them?”

The results, which were presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) in New Orleans, were based on a series of studies conducted with one group of breast-cancer survivors and a second group of overweight but otherwise healthy middle-aged adults, the Columbus, Ohio-based university reported. Jaremka´s team used the UCLA Loneliness Scale to measure each participant´s degree of social isolation, they noted.

“The researchers first sought to obtain a snapshot of immune system behavior related to loneliness by gauging levels of antibodies in the blood that are produced when herpes viruses are reactivated,” OSU officials said, adding that the study participants had their blood “analyzed for the presence of antibodies against Epstein-Barr virus and cytomegalovirus,” both of which were described as “herpes viruses that infect a majority of Americans.”

“Lonelier participants had higher levels of antibodies against cytomegalovirus than did less lonely participants, and those higher antibody levels were related to more pain, depression and fatigue symptoms. No difference was seen in Epstein-Barr virus antibody levels, possibly because this reactivation is linked to age and many of these participants were somewhat older, meaning reactivation related to loneliness would be difficult to detect,” they added.

Past studies have linked reactivation of those viruses to stress, leading Jaremka and colleagues to conclude that the same biological processes that cause that phenomenon also play a role in this new research.

“In an additional set of studies, the scientists sought to determine how loneliness affected the production of proinflammatory proteins, or cytokines, in response to stress,” the university said. “These studies were conducted with 144 women from the same group of breast cancer survivors and a group of 134 overweight middle-aged and older adults with no major health problems.”

“Baseline blood samples were taken from all participants, who were then subjected to stress — they were asked to deliver an impromptu five-minute speech and perform a mental arithmetic task in front of a video camera and three panelists. Researchers followed by stimulating the participants' immune systems with lipopolysaccharide, a compound found on bacterial cell walls that is known to trigger an immune response,” they added. “In both populations, those who were lonelier produced significantly higher levels of a cytokine called interleukin-6, or IL-6, in response to acute stress than did participants who were more socially connected.”