How does social isolation affect men?

Does loneliness promote inflammation?

Physical Effects: Social isolation not only affects mood, it affects the body as well. As a meta-analysis now shows, a lack of social contact seems to be associated with increased inflammatory reactions. Perceived loneliness also has an effect on the inflammatory process in the organism - but in a different way than actual isolation from other people.

Anyone who lives isolated from other people or feels lonely does not only suffer psychologically. The felt or actual social isolation can also have tangible physical effects. Studies show that lonely people sleep worse, experience more stress and perceive pain and symptoms as worse. In addition, loneliness weakens the immune system - as a result, those affected get sick more easily and may even age prematurely.

“Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of poor health. Researchers suspect that, among other things, they influence the body's inflammatory responses, ”explains Kimberley Smith from the University of Surrey. But is that also true?

Relation to markers of inflammation

To find out, Smith and her colleagues have now looked for answers in the scientific literature. For their meta-analysis, they evaluated a total of 14 studies that had dealt with the consequences of loneliness in adolescents and adults from the age of 16 years. They also included 16 other studies that looked at social isolation - instead of a subjective feeling, what is meant here is objective isolation from other people.

The evaluations revealed: In fact, social isolation seems to have a measurable effect on processes in the body. This condition was associated with increased concentrations of the so-called C-reactive protein. This substance supports the body's own immune defense in fighting pathogens and healing processes and is therefore an indicator of inflammation in the organism. It was also found to be linked to fibrinogen, a protein complex that is involved in the formation of blood clots.

Particularly pronounced in men

As the scientists report, the association between social isolation and physical signs of inflammation was surprisingly clearer in men than in women. According to them, the background is still unclear. However, it is already known from previous studies that men and women react differently to social stress factors.

But what about the feeling of loneliness? Here the link to inflammation was less obvious, the team found. However, at least some of the studies examined indicated that there was a connection with the release of interleukin-6 - a cytokine that helps regulate the organism's inflammatory response.

Felt loneliness has a different effect

According to Smith and her colleagues, this confirms that a lack of social contact and perceived loneliness both have a physical effect. However, the effects do not seem to be the same. While actual isolation from other people appears to directly promote inflammatory responses, loneliness may work differently. Based on previous findings, the researchers suspect that this feeling may change the response of the inflammatory system to stress.

"Our results suggest that social isolation and loneliness may be related to systemic inflammation," the team writes. “This is an important first step in understanding the impact of these conditions on health,” adds co-author Christina Victor from Brunel University London.

Further studies are now necessary to confirm the relationships observed and to decipher the underlying mechanisms. “As has been shown, it is very important to distinguish loneliness and isolation from one another and not to see them together or even as the same,” concludes Victor. (Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 2020; doi: 10.1016 / j.neubiorev.2020.02.002)

Source: University of Surrey

March 6, 2020

- Daniela Albat