Chronic Loneliness Can Make You Sick

At this time of year there is heightened awareness of the needs of others. We donate dollars, coats, toys and gifts, bags of food, or whatever else is needed to help make the holiday season a little less difficult for those facing economic hardship.  But social needs are also important, and when they are neglected due to self-imposed or situational isolation, there is an emotional and physical toll.  A holiday advertisement from the German store chain Edeka has been in the news this week for its powerful imagery of a lonely widower who is only able to bring his children and grandchildren together at Christmas by his (fake) death. Well played, Grandpa.

Sniffle inducing commercials aside, there are scientific links between loneliness and poor health. Studies released this year indicate that loneliness can make you ill and can be detrimental to longevity. Research out of Brigham Young University suggested that social isolation is as much of a risk factor to well-being as obesity, regardless of whether a person prefers solitude or is around others but feels alone. Even for younger people in the sample, little or weak social connection was a mortality risk.

Advancing their research on how loneliness results in changes at the molecular level, a research team including experts from the University of Chicago, UCLA and the California National Primate Research Center at the University of California-Davis, found that perceived social isolation leads to stress signaling, which affects genetic expression and cell production and lessens the body’s resistance to infection and illness.  The cells of lonely individuals contained “conserved transcriptional response to adversity” or CTRA (genes linked to inflammation in previous research). In this study however, loneliness was identified as a predictor of future genetic changes and a related decrease in the effectiveness of the immune system.  The team plans to continue their work on the links between loneliness, disease, and mortality to better understand the health risks and outcomes related to social isolation.




Holt-Lunstad, T. B. Smith, M. Baker, T. Harris, D. Stephenson. Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2015; 10 (2): 227 DOI: 10.1177/1745691614568352

Steven W. Cole, John P. Capitanio, Katie Chun, Jesusa M. G. Arevalo, Jeffrey Ma, John T. Cacioppo. Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015; 201514249 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1514249112

How Much Do We Care About Our Health?

Although the United States leads the world in obesity rates (don’t worry, the world is catching up) a recent study indicates that the majority of Americans do care about their health and put effort into improving or maintaining it.  Data from a NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health survey conducted last fall indicate that just over 60 percent of those polled were concerned with their health and 74 percent reported exercising or participating in vigorous activity at least a few times a week (29 percent reported exercising every day). However, just 16 percent were currently dieting to lose weight.

Also from the March 2015 brief What Shapes Health, approximately 50 percent of Americans feel they have control over their own health, but proportions vary by demographic characteristics. For example, respondents who made more than $50,000 a year were twice as likely to feel that they had control over their health than their peers earning less (28 percent compared to 13 percent). Far more respondents with a college degree (27 percent) reported having control over their health compared to those with a high school diploma or less (15 percent).  Also, respondents in fair or poor health, or from a household making less than $25,000 a year, had the most concern for their own future health.

Respondents did not identify a single cause of American health problems, rather the responses clustered at the top included a lack of access to high quality care (42 percent), personal behavior (40 percent), and virus/bacteria (40 percent). The most popular responses regarding what could be done to improve health were also varied – increasing access to affordable, healthy food (57 percent), reducing illegal drug use (54 percent), reducing pollution and increasing access to high quality health care (both at 52 percent).

A Look at the Research on School Lunches and the Importance of Recess

Over the summer I came across a couple of briefs from Bridging the Gap that I thought might be appropriate to post once the yellow buses started rolling again. One report summarizes research on the changes in the federal lunch program, the other discusses policies on recess.

Although an initial government study found the much debated new nutritional regulations resulted in a decrease in participation in the school lunch program, waste of food, price increases and menu planning challenges between 2010-11 and 2012-13, student opinion of lunches may not be as negative as previously thought. According to the brief, Student Reactions During the First Year of Updated School Lunch Nutrition Standards, data on administrator perception of student opinion of the new meals concluded that while middle and high school students did voice their displeasure about the new lunches (44 and 53 percent, respectively), by the end of the year they were liked “to at least some extent” by students (70 and 63 percent).  Other findings,

  • Among elementary schools, more students complained about the meals in the spring of 2014 than at the beginning of the school year (56 percent versus 64 percent), but 70 percent of those surveyed reported that students generally liked the new lunches.
  • Rural schools reported more student complaints about school lunches than urban schools.
  • Rural schools reported increases in waste (students throwing away food) more than urban schools.

While school lunches are one way to attempt to impact student health and wellness, there has not been as much policy activity around the inclusion of recess time for elementary-school-age students.  Less than half of the school districts in the country have a recommended or required policy regarding daily recess, and just 13 states recommend or mandate recess as part of the daily schedule in elementary schools.  The CDC/Bridging the Gap brief, Strategies for Supporting Recess in Elementary Schools, discusses evidence-based approaches for encouraging physical activity such as recess, including

  • training and technical assistance from states to districts on student health and wellness,
  • upgrades to or maintenance of existing playground and sports equipment, and
  • daily recess as well as scheduled physical education class in elementary schools.

More information on the importance of recess in child development (including academic achievement)  is available at the website for the  US Play Coalition: A Partnership to promote the Value of Play throughout Life  at the Clemson University School of Health, Education and Human Development, including the white paper A Research-based Case for Recess.



Report Citations:

Terry-McElrath YM, Turner L, Colabianchi N, O’Malley PM, Chaloupka FJ, Johnston LD. Student Reactions during the First Year of Updated School Lunch Nutrition Standards— A BTG Research Brief. Ann Arbor, MI: Bridging the Gap Program, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan; 2014.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Bridging the Gap Research Program. Strategies For Supporting Quality Physical Education and Physical Activity in Schools.Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2014.

A Closer Look at Trends in Youth Obesity

After a period of aggressive growth, obesity rates among American youth have stabilized somewhat in the last decade. Unfortunately, this good news may distract from the trend data indicating that obesity remains a cause for concern among certain sub-groups of youth.

In the paper, Increasing socioeconomic disparities in adolescent obesity, authors Carl B. Frederick, Kaisa Snellman, and Robert D. Putnam discuss the idea of income level as a kind of dividing line in recent obesity trends. In the early 2000’s, obesity rates declined for youth in higher socioeconomic categories, while slowing down or increasing among lower-income groups.  The authors found that youth with college-educated parents also experienced a decline in obesity. Due to the national sample limitations, the interaction of race+class was not tested.

Examining weight management as an equation of calories taken in versus calories expended, these findings indicate that lower income youth and/or youth with parents who had a high school education consumed more calories than their higher income peers and reported less recreational activity or exercise.  Issues of transportation to markets that carry a wide variety of items including produce, budget limits and the lure of easy to prepare, tasty (but processed) foods all likely play a role in consumption habits, but that is only half of the equation.  The authors note that in 2003, 86.6 percent of adolescent children with college-educated parents reported playing a sport or exercising for at least 20 minutes during the past 7 days compared to 79.8 percent of youth with high-school educated parents.  In 2010, the gap in exercise/recreation time increased to 91 percent and 80.4 percent, respectively.  Also, at a time when high school sport participation is at record levels, Frederick et al., point out that participation in school sports is declining among lower-income students.

Is income level a factor in youth recreation?

An article in ESPN the Magazine by Bruce Kelley and Carl Carchia dives into the data on youth sports participation, citing research from Dr. Don Sabo, Professor at D’Youville College and Co-Director of their Center for Research on Physical Activity, Sport & Health (CRPASH), that points to household income as the primary factor in how early a child begins playing sports. The article refers to Sabo’s work again in noting that low-income boys (27 percent) and low-income girls (17 percent) were among the least likely groups to be on multiple teams (3 or more) during grades 3 through 8. In addition, the report Progress Without Equity: The Provision of High School Athletic Opportunity in the United States, by Gender 1993-94 through 2005-06, published by the Women’s Sports Foundation (Dr. Sabo is a co-author), found differences in access to recreation, noting that opportunities for athletic participation for students was lowest among urban schools (compared to town, suburban and rural) during the research period.

Trend data indicate that the message to eat healthier and move more is making an impact, but perhaps only among certain social classes, particularly those with the resources to enroll their children in school and club sports.  With childhood obesity linked to physical health risks as well as risk-taking behaviors such as drug and alcohol experimentation and conflicts with peers, is it time to lessen the focus on “awareness” and look at realistic ways to increase physical activity for all youth?



Report Citations:

 Social Sciences – Social Sciences – Biological Sciences – Medical Sciences: Carl B. Frederick, Kaisa Snellman, and Robert D. Putnam Increasing socioeconomic disparities in adolescent obesity PNAS 2014; published ahead of print January 13, 2014, doi:10.1073/pnas.1321355110

Sabo, D. and Veliz, P. (2011). Progress Without Equity: The Provision of High School Athletic Opportunity in the United States, by Gender 1993-94 through 2005-06. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation.