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Consequences of Loneliness

Updated | Published

The lack of social interaction and inter-personal connecting with others can be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Specializes in Whole Health and Behavioral Health.

Do you struggle with loneliness?

Consequences of Loneliness

Loneliness and Isolation

Naturally, all of us have experienced the feeling of loneliness and isolation at one time or another. This in and of itself is not a bad thing. Taking time to retire from the cares and stresses of our busy lives can serve as a much-needed re-boost, allowing us to reengage with our personal and professional affairs with new energy and perspective.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Solitude is naught and society is naught. Alternate them and the good of each is seen.” In other words, balancing our need for alone time with social interaction is key to ensuring a healthy, balanced life.

Unfortunately, many of us are experiencing an imbalance in the direction of loneliness and isolation. Whether due, as some believe, to the advent of impersonal technologies in our increasingly digital and online world or other factors, there is a very real epidemic of loneliness in our country today.

Negative Effects of Loneliness

In a paper from January 2019, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration said that “Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day” along with chronic conditions like obesity. Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that “Two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated.

"The lack of connection can have life-threatening consequences", said Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who testified before the U.S. Senate in April, 2017 "that the problem is structural as well as psychological.”

This is a multi-generational problem. Over 43% of American seniors report feeling lonely on a regular basis, with a 45% increase in mortality rate among those seniors reporting loneliness. And, with the likelihood of an upswing of social isolation due to COVID-19 social distancing measures, it is even more important to be aware of the dangers to mental and physical health prolonged loneliness can pose.

Necessities to Survive

Shocking as it may seem, none of this information should be surprising. We all know that we are social creatures by nature. Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1972) in his well-known Hierarchy of Needs, identified belonging as the most important necessity to our survival after food, water, shelter and our immediate physical safety was taken care of. Relationships, or the belonging component of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, is also the most difficult imperative that most of us experience as human beings, with its complex and interconnected psychological, neurological, biochemical, and emotional components.

Unhealthy Trade-Off

Though many of us may be aware on an intellectual level of the negative effects of being in unhealthy relationships, the unconscious, emotional drive for belonging can override our conscious reasoning, leading us to stay in relationships that are not conducive to our well being. Being in relationships that feel bad is unhealthy and not happy – and not being in relationships with others can also feel bad, unhealthy and not happy. This is the reason why many individuals will remain in unhealthy situations even though they do not want to continue in a dysfunctional relationship.

Depressed Functioning

The negative effects of depression are becoming more apparent through growing research. In numerous studies, loneliness (especially in the elderly) has been shown to have a significant impact on an individual’s health and well-being in addition to their feeling of being valued or loved. Depression is a real problem for those experiencing loneliness. Depression has an immediate impact on an individual’s health and ability to function. According to Healthline, among the most prominent effects of depression, which affects 26% of Americans, are:

  • Insomnia
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Fatigue
  • Increased risk of heart attack
  • Feelings of dependency
  • Weakened immunity
  • Decreased sex drive

Ways to Alleviate Loneliness

Along with more traditional ways of achieving beneficial social interaction, such as attending church or joining a faith community (which has been shown to positively boost health) and utilizing social technologies like FaceTime and Google Hangout, there are a number of effective strategies to alleviate loneliness. Pet ownership has increased dramatically over the last 10 years in the U.S. Pets can eliminate the sense of being “alone” or lonely and have proven to have healing effects on individuals of all ages and all stages of illness.

Even our relationships with plants can help us to feel less alone and caring for them provides a sense of purposeful work and fulfillment, along with helping to naturally boost our mood. Additionally, lifestyle choices such as regular exercise and eating a plant-based, whole food diet can reduce symptoms of depression, which can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation.


The Loneliness Epidemic

The Effects of Depression in Your Body

Harvard Study: Going to Church Boosts Health

The Health Benefits and Risks fo Pet Ownership

The Perks of Being a Plant Lover

Exercise, Depression, and the Brain

Georgianna Donadio, MSc, DC, PhD, is the Director of the National Institute of Whole Health, and a health care visionary who pioneered the integration of Whole Health and Whole Person Healthcare within medical and holistic health organizations. Georgianna is one of only six Florence Nightingale Scholars in the U.S., an MNA award-winning Nurse Advocate and widely published Integrative Health expert and healthcare provider. Named “Best Integrative Healthcare Practitioner” in Boston, for 20 years she hosted the nationally syndicated, regionally Emmy nominated women’s TV programming, Woman-to-Woman®. She is currently the host of iHeart radio’s Living above the Drama which is heard globally, and an Amazon #1 Bestselling award winning author. She has been a regular contributor/writer for the Huffington Post, Dr Oz’s Share Care, Daily Strength and other national blogs.

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10 Comment(s)

A Hit With The Ladies, BSN, RN

Specializes in Psych. Has 5 years experience.

I don't know how I feel about that. People suck, and the inevitable fights and power-struggles are probably way worse for your health than loneliness. Plus, especially for introverts, it can feel draining to constantly have to put an act for other people's approval. Loneliness can't be as bad as being constantly annoyed or at someone else's throats or feeling like you're having to walk on eggshells all the time.


Specializes in nursing ethics.

That government agency report is not credible, at all. What is their evidence? Comparing loneliness to cigarette smoking sounds fallacious and intended to shock, not inform. Smoking is factual well documented health hazard...loneliness is subjective, intuitive, opinion. Authors have been saying how bad loneliness is for the heart and soul for over 35 years, without solid reliable evidence, as far as I know. Self reported Surveys are often unreliable. If loneliness was like smoking tobacco, I would have been dead long ago. Aloneness is not always loneliness.

Dr Georgianna Donadio, PhD

Specializes in Whole Health and Behavioral Health.

Hello "Hit with the Ladies"-

Thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear that you feel "people suck". It must be challenging to feel that way and be in the service of caring for others as a nurse.

Being in a difficult or hostile situation with another person can really be hard on our health, for sure. Ironically, though interacting with another person, even in conflict, can be less of an impact then being in isolation. The cruelest punishment we can experience is solitary confinement or to be ostracized from a family or group of friends, because as human beings we are wired to connect with others.

While being alone doesn't equate to loneliness, not being connected to others or sharing our experiences/life with someone we feels cares about us appears to be significant.

Insurance actuarial data shows that people live statistically longer even if they are in a difficult marriage or relationship than they do if they are alone. Pet ownership has made a huge difference for many people. Having unconditional love from a pet can often take the place of a human relationship, as you say, without the fights and power struggles.

Thanks for sharing,
All the best,

Dr Georgianna Donadio, PhD

Specializes in Whole Health and Behavioral Health.

Hello Myword1,

You are absolutely right that "aloneness is not always loneliness".
We can be alone and yet feel that there are people in our lives that care about us and are there if we reach out to connect. We can have loving pets or a community or worship group that provide us a sense of belonging.

There is ample, solid evidence and multiple research studies that have been done in the past 15 years ( you can Google "Pubmed studies on loneliness") that show the relationship of feeling that we don't belong - which is what loneliness is all about - with the incidence to chronic disease.

We can be alone but not lonely and be with large numbers of people and feel all alone. It has to do with how connected or valued we feel, which appears to be an essential part of our human need. Sharing our human experience, good, bad or indifferent, is something that appears to be good for us.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject.
Kind regards,


Specializes in Travel, Home Health, Med-Surg. Has 20 years experience.

Thank you for the article and reminding all of us that loneliness can be a huge problem for some. Unfortunately the elderly are probably most affected because of their lack of using social media etc (at least in my own family). Personally I tend to be more introverted/antisocial but even I must admit to feeling the need to get out and on with life. My sister on the other hand is more of a social butterfly so this is extremely hard on her. I agree with what Waldo Emerson wrote, “Solitude is naught and society is naught. Alternate them and the good of each is seen".

Even though the time involved with "alternating" is different for each of us we do all need some social interaction so I hope these shut downs end soon.

Dr Georgianna Donadio, PhD

Specializes in Whole Health and Behavioral Health.

Hello Daisy4RN -

Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
Yes, it appears that we humans need varying degrees of interaction
but that we are happier and healthier when we have some in our lives.

It has been noted that people involved in societal violence tend to be "loners" - individuals who function outside the norms of healthy,
caring relationships. Psychologists say we need to belong, to feel connected to each other in some form or another.

Let's hope that some good might come out of this pandemic and we become more aware of our need for others; that we might become kinder and more compassionate as a result of this difficult time we are all going through.

I'm with you Daisy! Let's hope the shutdown ends soon and we can reconnect with our friends and families again! Hugs matter!! 🙂

Thanks again!
All the best,

This was very sobering and thought provoking for me. Thank you for sharing.

I have heard that instagram and other forms of “social” media can also create feelings of loneliness and may be bad for health. I avoid most social media other than this website.

I liked your suggestion on the benefit that a pet can add and caring for plants. Thank you for the article.

Dr Georgianna Donadio, PhD

Specializes in Whole Health and Behavioral Health.

Hello ICUman,

Glad the article was helpful.
Yes, pets are great companions. As you probably know, many nursing homes and assisted living facilities are having dogs and other pets brought in to visit their residents with excellent results.

We humans need our connection with each other which makes this pandemic so difficult in addition to causing much suffering.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts,
Kind regards,



Has 7 years experience.

I don’t know why, but this post reminds me of “Up”

I loved how he handled social isolation.