Cavemen had problems. Tracking a meal, avoiding a predator, or finding a comfortable spot to sleep were constant issues. But there was one problem they didn’t have. Loneliness.
Stone Age man lived in groups, which provided a slew of benefits. When it’s just you and your spear against a mastodon, the odds are not good. But a full hunting party, even without Downton Abbey style servants, makes a favorable outcome more likely.
It’s a lot easier to sleep at night if you’re in a group with a designated lookout for predators.
And if you sprained your ankle? On your own you’d probably be dinner. Safety in numbers cannot be overrated in this scenario.
Now imagine you are a caveman and find yourself alone. That’s a stressful situation. You’d have to find your own food, kill it and cook it. You’d have to be on constant watch for predators. Sleep would certainly be fleeting. In the Stone Age, sensitivity to isolation offered a survival advantage – it kept you solidly attached to your group.
Today things are different. We can go to the grocery store alone and hunt down a perfectly marbled T-bone in a Styrofoam tray. We can go home and cook it on the grill with no worry that the fire went out while we were away. We can then sleep on a mattress set to our perfect number. And not once do we have to worry about a pack of saber tooth cats attacking.
Yet we still don’t handle isolation well.
What served as a warning to correct a momentary problem for the cavemen is a chronic problem for modern man. We are an increasingly isolated society, and this carries real physical consequences. Rather than serving as a righting mechanism as they did for the caveman, they create chronic negative health consequences for us.
John T. Cacioppo, PhD, of the University of Chicago has done extensive research into the effects of loneliness and social isolation on health. He digs into much of the research in his book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. If you want the Cliff’s Notes version, you can read his summary of consequences and mechanisms of loneliness from the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
In short, loneliness affects every aspect of health. It increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, and depression. In fact, loneliness is predictive of all-cause mortality - those who were lonely were significantly more likely to die for any reason over the next eight years of follow up in this particular study.
Further, loneliness is predictive of cognitive decline and dementia. It affects sleep, health behaviors, genes, the immune system and the endocrine system.
The take away here is loneliness is bad for our health and well-being. If we are lonely, we need to do something about it.
It’s important to remember isolation doesn’t necessarily mean physical isolation – it can result from a number of factors. A bad marriage. Hearing loss. Lack of mobility. The lack of meaningful social relationships is the key here, regardless of how many people surround you.
There are ways to combat the problem. Dr. Cacioppo investigated four methods of intervention and found positive results. These include enhancing social skills, providing social support, increasing opportunities for social interaction, and addressing maladaptive social cognition. While the first three can be undertaken as an individual the fourth may require professional help.
Think about the caveman. When he was alone, everything was a threat. Something similar can happen to isolated individuals - their perceptions skew so that others are a threat. This pattern of thinking worsens isolation, creating a cycle that’s difficult to break. A psychologist will teach skills to overcome this pattern of thinking.
If you are feeling lonely, don’t let it affect your health. Take a class, reach out to someone who seems lonely, too, or work on becoming a better listener. If you need professional help, seek it out. It’s the path to a healthier and longer life.
Amy Rogers MD is not a practicing physician and nothing written here should be taken as medical advice from either Amy or AssetBuilder. Medical decisions should be made with care in consultation with your health care provider.