Being Lonely Can Give You A Cold And Make You Sick

One in four Australian adults are lonely, according to a landmark study, with warnings of links between loneliness and other more serious health issues including depression, anxiety and infections.

The Australian Loneliness Report was released on Friday, a collaboration between the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University of Technology. A study of 1600 people, it is being called the most comprehensive report of its kind in this country, and has captured a troubling snapshot of the issue of loneliness in Australia.

The study found one quarter of Australian adults always felt lonely. Half of Australians felt lonely at least one day a week, and the study draws links between loneliness and a higher incidence of depression, anxiety, general poor psychological wellbeing, and overall poorer quality of life.

"It's a large study but we're just scratching the surface of loneliness in Australia," Dr Michelle Lim told 10 daily.

Image via Pixabay
(Image via Pixabay)

Lim is the  chair of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness, a scientific committee that advises the government on how to address the issue, and a senior senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Swinburne University. She said loneliness was far from just a social anxiety issue, with the problem also clearly linked to physical health issues.

Loneliness could be "Australia’s next public health epidemic", according to the Australian Psychological Society.

READ MORE: Loneliness Is The Quiet Hidden Health Epidemic Australia Needs To Fix

"Nausea, stomach pain, headaches, and overall poorer physical health. This is really highlighting that it's not just a social problem, but a physical problem. We're learning just what is the burden of loneliness on the health system."

Perhaps surprisingly, those over 65 were the least lonely age group, with all other ages reporting roughly similar levels of loneliness. The report said "concerning" findings included:

  • 10 percent of people always felt isolated
  • 37 percent found it difficult to make friends
  • 51 percent often feel shy, with 11 percent always feeling that way
  • 13 percent feel uncomfortable making eye contact with others
  • 15 percent feel tense when they see an acquaintance on the street

Married people had the lowest levels of loneliness. Those aged 18-25 and 56-65 had the highest levels.

(Getty Images)

The study also looked at social relationships and bonds. Troublingly, many people reported having few or no close friends, family or neighbours to speak to in times of trouble or need.

  • 13 percent had no relative to call for help
  • eight percent never hear from relatives, and the same number do not hear from friends at least once a month
  • 12 percent do not have a friend they can talk to about private matters or ask for help

Lim also said loneliness was being explored for its links to physical health issues including sleeping difficulties, headaches, stomach complaints, nausea, colds and infections. She said this was because the brain processed loneliness, which she described as a "social pain", the same way it processes physical pain -- which leads to physical results.

"People who are lonely have more headaches, poorer sleep and problems like stomach issues. We don't know the cause and effect yet. We're seeing if lonely people are just more unhealthy to begin with, or if loneliness is causing the problems," she said.

"But it is causing them stress and physiological problems. Loneliness shares similar pain pathways to physical pain, so the brain processes it as pain, which is taxing on the body. The brain processes it as stress."

Science is investigating the links between loneliness and physical health (Getty Images)

Lim said loneliness had long been dismissed as simply a psychological issue, but new research was unlocking how it has a far wider impact than previously thought.

"We're learning this from brain scans, imaging and neuroscience. There's a lot of evidence about how lonely people process information differently around social interactions. They are more stressed out, even if they want to connect," she said

"They see social interactions as a threat. Think of loneliness as a social pain, a consequence of feeling nobody understands you. This is processed as a stress in the brain, then leads to negative impacts."

"Perceiving something as threatening or scary, thinking nobody has your back, the stress has a flow-on effect into physical symptoms."

Lim said more research was being done into the exact causes of loneliness, and whether technology and social media played a part. But speaking to 10 daily last month, she had advice for people who felt lonely, and for people who had friends or family who felt that way.

There is a role to play for people who don't feel lonely, she advised.

"It's not just lonely people who have to pay attention, but other people who need to recognise if friends are reaching out. If someone is asking to see you, and you're saying you're too busy to catch up, the effort is not reciprocal and can be bad," Lim said.

"A lonely person is making the effort, but it's hard. It's important for people to respond."

Contact the author: jbutler@networkten.com.au

Photo: Getty