Meet the newest health risk: loneliness

Add a new item to the list of things that are bad for your health: Loneliness. Research has repeatedly linked loneliness to high blood pressure, poor sleep quality, and even dementia.

But while well-known treatments exist for other health risks like obesity and smoking, the best way to treat loneliness isn't as clear. Is it simply a matter of giving a lonely person more chances to socialize? Do they need help developing social skills?

"If we know that loneliness is involved in health problems, the next question is what can we do to mitigate it," John Cacioppo, a professor of psychology at University of Chicago Medicine, said.

Seeking an answer, Cacioppo teamed up with Christopher Masi, assistant professor of medicine at UChicago Medicine. Together, they reviewed hundreds of studies on the effectiveness of various treatments conducted between 1970 and 2009. By analyzing the findings and data, the team arrived at some very interesting — and unexpected — conclusions.

Approaches that focused on improving subjects' social skills or increasing their opportunities to socialize produced only subtle improvements, at best. However, treating what the authors call "maladaptive social cognition" produced much more positive results.

In a sense, "maladaptive social cognition" is simply a clinical term for social awkwardness. "Lonely people have incorrect assumptions about themselves and about how other people perceive them," Masi said.

Addressing incorrect assumptions about oneself, it turns out, might just be the best way to reduce loneliness.

The key to helping lonely people boils down to helping them approach social situations with a more positive attitude. The researchers recommend exercises designed to break unhealthy thought patterns and, in some cases, cognitive-behavioral therapy.

If we know that loneliness is involved in health problems, the next question is what can we do to mitigate it.

For their next step, Cacioppo and Masi hope to design standard approaches to measuring and treating loneliness, methods that might be useful for both psychologists and primary care physicians. Different interventions can also be designed for people with minor or severe loneliness, Cacioppo suggested. But all such designs would do well to focus on social cognition above other tools to reduce the health hazard of loneliness.

"Effective interventions are not so much about providing others with whom people can interact, providing social support, or teaching social skills as it is about changing how people who feel lonely perceive, think about, and act toward other people," Cacioppo said.

Masi CM, Chen HY, Hawkley LC, & Cacioppo JT (2010). A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness. Personality and social psychology review : an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc PMID: 20716644

Rob Mitchum
Rob Mitchum

Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.