Why Loneliness Might Be Making Us Unhealthy

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“Loneliness does not necessarily mean physical isolation but rather a perceived lack of meaningful social connections..”

Perceived social isolation, commonly defined as feelings of loneliness, has been a research focus, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic. Loneliness does not necessarily mean physical isolation but rather a perceived lack of meaningful social connections. Prior research has associated loneliness with various health risks, such as cardiovascular diseases and early mortality. Moreover, the psychological impact of loneliness has been connected to conditions like depression and anxiety. The novelty aspect of the study discussed below lies in its quest for how loneliness influences the brain’s response to food cues, potentially explaining simultaneous changes in eating behaviors and body composition.

According to a recent advisory by United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H Murthy Americans face an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. As documented by a wealth of epidemiological data, the health impacts of social insolation include an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.

In a study conducted by Xiaobei Zhang, PhD from the Goodman-Luskin Microbiome Center and G. Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience at UCLA, along with her colleagues from various academic institutions, the investigators studied the impact of perceived social isolation on brain reactivity to food cues, eating behaviors, and mental health. This research, published in the 2024 edition of JAMA Network Open, involved 93 healthy, premenopausal female participants from the Los Angeles area, observed between September 2021 and February 2023. The study attempted to address the gap in understanding the neural mechanisms underlying the link between social isolation and several adverse health outcomes, including obesity and psychological distress.

“Participants were exposed to food-related and non-food-related visual cues while their brain activity was recorded.”

This study involved a detailed examination using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess brain reactivity. Participants were exposed to food-related and non-food-related visual cues while their brain activity was recorded. Additionally, body composition was analyzed, and participants self-reported their eating behaviors and mental health symptoms. This data collection allowed for an analysis of the relationships between social isolation, brain reactivity, eating patterns, and mental health.

The study’s results revealed that higher levels of perceived social isolation correlated significantly with increased brain reactivity to food cues, particularly sweet foods, Involved brain networks included areas associated with the brain’s default mode, executive control, and visual attention networks. These neural responses were found to mediate the relationships between social isolation and various health outcomes, including increased body fat percentage and maladaptive eating behaviors such as food cravings and reward-based eating. Furthermore, the study identified a decline in mental health, with elevated symptoms of anxiety and depression correlating with higher degrees of social isolation.

“Higher levels of perceived social isolation correlated significantly with increased brain reactivity to food cues, particularly sweet foods.”

The altered brain reactivity in socially isolated people implies that loneliness can modify the brain’s attention and motivational responses to food, potentially leading to the observed maladaptive changes in eating behavior and body composition. The researchers suggest that these brain changes could serve as biomarkers for identifying individuals at risk of obesity and mental health disorders due to social isolation. This is especially relevant in the broader context of loneliness as a major public health issue, where early identification and intervention could mitigate some of the adverse outcomes.

The focus on the US epidemic of loneliness and isolation and the emerging research studies identifying the biological mechanisms underlying the negative health effects sound a much-needed alarm. Loneliness and social isolation are not mere inconveniences. Zhang et al.’s research highlights the profound impact of perceived social isolation on physical and psychological health through changes in brain function linked to food cue processing. The study stresses the need for targeted social and psychological interventions that address the neural and psychological aspects of loneliness, offering possible avenues for the prevention and treatment of its linked health complications. The findings support a holistic approach to health care that considers social factors such as social interactions vital to preventing and managing various health conditions.

Richard Tirado a recent graduate from UCLA, where he majored in Biology and minored in Anthropology.

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD