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Being lonely could kill you

If you look up the meaning of the word ‘lonely’, you will come up with more than one definition. But it will all boil down to the unique human trait of avoiding isolation. Loneliness is a distressing feeling that accompanies the perception that your social needs are not being met by the quantity or the quality of social relationships. You see, humans rely on safe and secure social environments in order to survive. Loneliness is known to increase the sense of vulnerability, and triggers several mechanisms that have a role in the interplay between normality and disease.

Loneliness, also referred to as social isolation, is a fairly common occurrence. Everyone gets lonely at certain points, and this is normal. Some studies suggest high levels of loneliness in adolescence, followed by declining loneliness in the middle adult years. There is then an increased level of loneliness in old age, beyond 65 years. Episodic loneliness is fairly innocuous, but long lasting loneliness is a harbinger of poor health.

Research shows that loneliness can alter the way genes function, alter certain hormone pathways, and influence impulsive behaviour. The resultant effect is an altered immune system and an increased risk of inflammatory-mediated illnesses like heart disease. Some studies show loneliness can increase the risk of early death by a factor of 45%, and the chance of dementia by 64%. Conversely, those with strong social ties have as much as 50% less chance of dying at any one time. Hence the advice that you should attend to loneliness the same way as you do your diet, exercise, sleep, and other aspects of healthy habits.

Modern lifestyle means that social isolation is ever rising, and is increasingly recognized as a health risk factor. Loneliness is rooted in the quality of your social relationships with family, friends and colleagues. The further you are from meaningful interactions with other people, the more the risk of isolation, leading you onto a dangerous path of loneliness and disease.

So what should you do if you find yourself drifting into loneliness? The first reaction is to recognize your tendency to social isolation, rather than sweep it under the carpet. Then accept that your loneliness is likely to lead you to not only psychological, but physical diseases as well. You must then take tangible steps to reconnect with humanity. There are many recognized ways of getting you back to intimate interactions. You can get yourself into some social peer groups, look up old family ties, or reconnect with long lost friendships. Social media is an alternative to get you going, though physical connections will benefit you most.

You may be too far gone with loneliness, and already harbouring depressive symptoms. In such cases, seeking help urgently is warranted. And don’t ignore your acquaintances who may be on a lonely path, nudge them onto a healthier social path.

Dr Alfred Murage is a Consultant Gynecologist and Fertility Specialist. amurage@mygyno.co.ke

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