Saturday, September 15, 2007

We can't change them into the happy, laughing life of the party, but we can keep them out of the coffin.
---Steve Cole, genomics researcher at UCLA


The chronically lonely are known to be more likely to suffer from ill health. A recent study suggests that this state of mind actually affects gene action in a way that decreases immune response and increases inflammation.

Dr. Cole and his colleagues set out to find the biological basis for the detrimental effects of loneliness on health. They studied the DNA of a group of 153 volunteers, looking for abnormal gene expression as related to the self-expressed degree of loneliness in their subjects.

The UCLA Loneliness Scale was used to determine just how isolated these folks felt. Then DNA gleaned from white blood cells of the 8 top lonely scorers was compared with the DNA from the 6 subjects most connected to others. The researchers found 209 genes abnormally expressed in the lonely genome, many involved in activation of the immune system and production of inflammation. The genes in charge of inflammation were overexpressed, and those that regulate the production of antibodies against bacteria and viruses were underexpressed.

These results may explain why isolation and loneliness increases vulnerability to infection and cardiovascular disease. Dr. Cole theorizes that strategies that decrease inflammation may promote better health amongst the isolated.

3 comments:

Midlife Midwife said...

But which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did they become lonely as a result of their genetic code or did the genetic code come as a result of the loneliness?

Mauigirl said...

Very interesting. My aunt, who has lived alone for the past 25 years since my grandmother died, is the one with the cardiovascular disease and everything else wrong with her. Her sister, my mother, is 100% fine. Up until 2 years ago my mother had my father, plus she just isn't the type to feel isolated; she is very actively mentally involved in politics and other issues. I'm hoping my aunt, who is moving into the same apartment building my mom is in, may benefit from increased social interaction.

Femail doc said...

Hi MM: I think this study is saying that normal genes are abnormally expressing inflammatory proteins and cytokines in the lonely. The same situation, they postulate, is true for the metabolic syndrome and the alarming trend towards diabetes, namely good genes built for famine, cold, and obligatory physical exertion are expressing in haywire ways under the abnormal (for the human genome that is) modern environment.

MG: My mom, after all the agony of the move to the nursing home, is functioning better with more socialization. Too late, however, for her cerebrovascular system--her brain vasculature is already toast, perhaps accelerated by years of living alone. I hope your aunt thrives near her sister.