The End of Loneliness?

Jealousy, we know, rots the bones. Now researchers are telling us that loneliness warps the genes.

Scientists at the UCLA School of Medicine, the University of California at Davis and the University of Chicago, have recently found that social isolation adversely affects the genetic configurations conducive to health. They found that monocytes, a type of white blood cell, produced in the bone marrow, which helps defend the body against inflammation and disease, become stunted by loneliness.

How that happens is not known. But it should not surprise us that the emotional ravages of loneliness are somehow destructive to the human body. The link between emotion and physiology is not unfamiliar. We have known for a long time that anger raises blood pressure and increases the chances of heart attack.

Lonely people are also at greater risk for heart disease, as well as cancer and Alzheimer’s. The genetic changes now being linked to loneliness may be as injurious as smoking and rival the harm caused by diabetes and obesity, they say.

They aren’t yet talking about a pill to cure loneliness or suppress its symptoms, though that will probably come in time. Don’t think for a moment that the pharmaceutical companies haven’t already started dreaming of the marketing potential.

In the meantime, the correlation between loneliness and ill health has prompted some experts to call for the next best thing to a pill: social programming. Society should do more, they say.

“In public health, we talk all the time about obesity and smoking and have all these interventions, but not about people who are lonely and socially isolated,” said Kerstin Gerst Emerson, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Gerontology. “There are really tangible, terrible outcomes. Lonely people are dying, they’re less healthy, and they are costing our society more.”

In the United Kingdom, they’re ahead of us in this. Perhaps too far ahead. The national Campaign to End Loneliness, begun in 2011, could have been more modestly named. Kennedy’s declaration of the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade was at least theoretically doable; ending loneliness is not. It is part of the human condition and cannot be eradicated like polio or smallpox.

But, to be sure, it can do some good. The five social-service agencies and about 2,500 smaller organizations working to focus awareness on the problem can at least help to reduce, if not end it.

If doctors learn to include an assessment, however cursory, of a person’s social situation in the course of examination and treatment, it would also help to alleviate this scourge. Whether a patient has friends or not may be as crucial to a medical diagnosis as pulse rate and blood pressure.

After the turmoil and trauma of Obamacare (likely not over yet), the overstressed medical establishment in the United States may not be feeling up to making a commitment as quixotic as ending loneliness. In the meantime, publicity about the research into the problem will serve to raise awareness.

Of course, the classic Jewish remedy is in Avos (1:6): “kneh lecha chaver — acquire for yourself a friend.” The price of purchase may come in different forms: time, energy, money. But it’s worth it. A good friend is an invaluable acquisition. What’s more, it’s a healthy thing to do.

Sadly, not everyone is able to implement the advice of Avos. There are those who lack the social skills to make friends, or fear rejection, or are in a state of depression.

The elderly, in particular, suffer from loneliness. A longitudinal study conducted of 7,060 individuals 60 and older by the University of Georgia in 2008 and 2012 determined that loneliness was “a significant public health issue,” one that “contributes to a cycle of illness and health-care utilization.”

Baruch Hashem, our communities provide help for people with all kinds of problems, including loneliness. But the onus, the mitzvah of ahavas chessed, is on each one of us, to look out for those who need a friend. We cannot wait for a pill, or for society to do more.

We cannot end loneliness, but we can ease the pain.