3 ways loneliness affects health outcomes

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An older woman sits on a sofa in a living room and stares out an open window next to a potted plant.A widowed mother of four is struggling. She lost her spouse, and her grown children are dispersed across the country, limiting their quality time together. Her loneliness has made it challenging to take her medications and go to regular provider check-ups. Addressing her loneliness can make a huge difference in her life, leading to better health outcomes and a greater connection to her health plan.

Loneliness can create consequences for the way we engage in our health and well-being. In fact, a mere 80 patients accounted for 5,139 emergency department (ED) visits in one year. However, treating loneliness increases engagement and lowers unnecessary ED use and hospitalization. 

That said, before you can address loneliness, you must understand how it affects health outcomes.

The impact of loneliness on mental and physical health 

We all feel a little “blue” from time to time, facing the many highs and lows life throws our way. While all cases of loneliness are important to address, when it is more pervasive it can be even more detrimental to their well-being. In addition to elevating one’s overall risk of premature death, loneliness increases health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. 

Mental health outcomes

If you’re lonely, your mental health is already taking a hit. But people who are lonely often have poorer physical health outcomes. Although it doesn’t happen overnight, severe loneliness changes how the mind works. 

1. Depression and cognitive impairment or decline

Prolonged loneliness gives way to mental health problems, especially depression and cognitive decline. Some of this seems obvious to the average person — if you aren’t feeling your best, you won’t be your best — but science backs it up. In fact, greater loneliness and social isolation is related to higher rates of clinical depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation and a 40% increase in a person’s risk of dementia and hearing loss.

What most people don’t understand is why this happens. In short, loneliness impacts the inner workings of your brain and its chemistry. The experts explain it best:

"Loneliness can change the neurochemistry of the brain, turning off the dopamine neurons, which trigger the reward response." — Katherine Peters, M.D., Ph.D., FAAN, Duke University

"Loneliness is also associated with reductions in brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein crucial for neuronal health, cognition and memory.” — Louise McCullough, M.D., Ph.D., University of Texas 

As a plan provider, what does this mean for you? It means an increased risk of poor physical and behavioral health outcomes. Men who screen as lonely on the UCLA-3 are three times more likely than women to score high for psychological distress — and are less likely to receive treatment. On the whole, lonely members are also less likely to socialize, engage with current care plans or adhere to medication regimens. 

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Physical health outcomes

One of the things you often hear is that loneliness contributes to an increased risk of disease. Persistent struggles with loneliness increase your risk of disease in several ways, including:

2. Elevated cortisol levels

Cortisol supports the cardiovascular and immune systems, but as the cliché goes, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Consistently higher levels could lead to deregulation, contributing to heart disease and immunodeficiencies.

So what does this mean? Lonely people can become almost literally heartbroken, facing a 32% increase in risk of stroke and a 29% increase in risk of coronary heart disease compared to those who aren’t lonely. On top of this, weakened immune cells increase your vulnerability to infectious diseases. Having a sense of purpose is linked to healthier immune cells.

3. Chronic inflammation 

Our bodies need to activate the inflammatory process to heal from injury. The challenge is that loneliness overstimulates the inflammatory process. This can be problematic because prolonged inflammation increases the risk of chronic diseases, such as:

  • Diabetes, which affects 34.2 million people, or 10.5% of the U.S. population.
  • Arthritis and joint diseases, which affect approximately 58.5 million people, or 23.7% of the U.S. population.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which affects 15.7 million people, or 6.4% of the U.S. population.

For plan providers, increased rates of diseases among the loneliest members mean these individuals often require higher levels of care. However, feeling isolated and cut off from the world makes it harder to engage in health care and practice self-management. The result? Worsening chronic conditions and habits that lead to the disproportionate use of emergency departments.

Improve health outcomes by reducing loneliness

Loneliness doesn’t just amount to feeling “a little off.” In fact, the most severe and longest-lasting forms of loneliness can cause depression, cognitive decline and diseases ranging from heart disease to diabetes. But both members and plans can do more to improve health outcomes. 

Lean on Pyx Health to help. As a program centered on both compassionate human companionship and next-level technology, we provide the tools to improve engagement, including helpful resources and activities inside our app, interactive chatbot support and our exclusive Thrive Pathway program. 

Get your members engaged and improve their health outcomes. Explore our member engagement benefits and contact us to see the difference Pyx Health can make!

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