Loneliness is the largest factor in biological ageing

By Thomas Bainbridge

Anecdotally, depressive states and melancholy have long been said to affect to overall health and appearance. Now such results have been shown in a clinical setting, and in a very prominent manner. The China Health and Retirement Longitudinal was a study that looked at this phenomenon more closely and involved 4846 adult participants. It considered numerous lifestyle indicators and used them to distinguish someone’s chronological age (their actual age in years), and their biological age (how old their body is relative to their bodily functions and overall health). The results regarding loneliness and depression were staggering. Such mental health conditions were shown to biologically age a person by up to 1.65 years – this was shown to be the largest contributing factor to biological ageing, remarkably even more so than smoking.

This is not altogether too shocking however, in another study of 2020, depressive disorders instigated through loneliness and anxiety have been shown to accompany an increase in the cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is a prominent stress hormone, and one that is a vital defense mechanism that is employed in fight or flight scenarios. Adrenaline is also produced in low levels. When these are present in the bloodstream for extended periods of time (as is the in the case of anxiety and depression disorders) it can be detrimental to the basic functions of everyday life as symptoms are manifest such as that of a low appetite (which in itself has negative bodily effects).

An absence of socialisation can lead to chronic loneliness and accompanying depression

It is important though to distinguish loneliness from merely introversion. Many people show introverted tendencies on the psychological spectrum and require time to ‘recharge their social battery’ so to say. However, introverts still need some form of social engagement to both a regulation of dopamine levels and for emotional orientation. A complete absence of socialization can lead to the chronic loneliness and accompanying depression described.

Of course, the human body is a very complex system and is variously affected by its outer surroundings (a fact which seems obvious). Most people, however, focus mainly on the material conditions that can harm the body: cold, damp and lack of nutrition as well as habits that can also have an undue effect on it such as smoking and drinking. These are of course important to take note of, but this should not occur to the detriment of gaining a sound understanding of the psychological conditions which can also lead to a weakened biological state- as the mounting evidence now seems to suggest.

In fact, we are in a period where, more and more, it seems that our psychological health is more adverse or a threat than our immediate physical health – taking into account our relative abundance in food and shelter. Through such studies, the medical community has become more open to a shift towards considering the body as a whole, including an understanding of the psychological effects on the body such as loneliness and depression. In short, the mind can greatly affect the body, and more so than previously realized – Fedor Galkin, one of the main authors of the study claimed that “your body and soul are connected- this is our main message.”

It is possible to combat such conditions through prescription antidepressant drugs which can reduce the effects that such conditions can have on the body, such as by reducing the re-uptake of certain hormones including serotonin (though the importance of this has recently been called into question). What seems more important, however, is to prevent such symptoms by actually going to the root of the matter.

Certainly, the modern age of social media and the increasing obsession with status that has accompanied it can leave people by the wayside- as seen in the explosion of anxiety and depression related disorders since the invasion of hand-held technology into our everyday lives. Some encouraging words can go a long way in giving people the hope and motivation to bypass and supersede these worries.

Sometimes merely reaching out can be a significant gesture in itself

A common practice in the modern medical community is that of social prescribing which allows those who might commonly be more isolated from their local community to become more involved in certain activities and hopefully lead a more fulfilling lifestyle. Thus, a more compassionate approach towards others, and an understanding of the commonalities in the problems we all face is something which might be readily adopted in pursuit of the desire to overcome these mental health problems, which in turn (as shown) should increase the longevity as well as quality of the human lifespan. Sometimes merely reaching out can be a significant gesture in itself.

Image: Clément Falize, via Unsplash

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