Why Loneliness Is Bad For Your Health (part 1)

by Farzana Rahman


Why Lonliness is Bad For Your Health

These days, communication is so easy that it’s a nuisance at times.  From waking up to a raft of work emails, to being bombarded with the details of a Facebook acquaintance’s romantic weekend, we communicate so frequently that it can be, quite frankly, exhausting.

But this wasn’t always the case.  When my parents moved to the UK from Bangladesh in the 1970s, my mother let her family know that she had reached safely using a telegram.  An actual old school telegram, not the paranoid little brother of WhatsApp. (This is joke. Being cautious of privacy does not equal paranoia).


The Growing Problem of Loneliness

However, although communication is now easier than ever, more and more of us suffer from loneliness. It’s such a widespread problem that a Minister for Loneliness has been appointed in the UK. Social isolation is a problem commonly faced by older people, but loneliness is an epidemic affecting all ages.


The definition of Loneliness

Loneliness is defined as feeling remote or isolated. Many people who feel this way are often surrounded by other people, yet they feel disconnected.  It can be associated with feelings of shame, amplified through the effects of social media.  Social media offers a snapshot of reality; the sharing of pictures and posts about holidays, parties and brunch (so much talk about brunch). It can leave some people feeling increasingly isolated as they compare their own lives to the perceived lives of those around them.


Loneliness and Health

But what does this have to do with health ? Turns out, quite a lot.

 Roseto is a small town in Pennsylvania. It is the site of some of the most interesting research into the effects of loneliness on Health.  It’s so famous, that it coined the term, ‘the Roseto Effect.’


The Roseto Effect

In 1961, Roseto was a small village made up of largely of Italian immigrants, who had immigrated to the United States at the end of the 19th century. It was a small, tightknit community.  The village had an active social life, neighbors shared meals with each other, the community regularly went to church together and many families lived in multi-generational homes.

In 1961,  Dr Stewart Wolf, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, studied this town after speaking with a local doctor who had noticed that the rates of heart disease were lower in this community compared with other neighboring villages.

Dr Wolf found that the local doctor’s observations were correct. He and his team studied the population and found heart attack rates were half that of the national average.  This finding was unique to the village, in the adjoining town of Bangor, heart attack rates were close to the national average.


Researchers looked into possible causes of these better outcomes. They initially suspected that these outcomes could have been related to diet and lifestyle. However, when the researchers looked closely, they found that this was not the case. Their assumption that Roseto inhabitants cooked with olive oil or exercised regularly, proved untrue. Many smoked, few exercised regularly and most people consumed fats such as lard.


Similar research looking at geography, water or the quality of medical care also proved unfruitful. In the end, the team came to the conclusion that the better outcomes in Roseto were not related to diet for exercise. They concluded it was the supportive community that led to better outcomes.


In the intervening years after 1961, the lifestyle in Roseto started to change. The community expanded and the traditional communal way of living slowly gave way to a more ‘modern’ way of living. Social ties were not as strong as previously.


Over the next two decades, heart disease rates in Roseto doubled on the incidence of high blood pressure tripled. By the end of the 1970s, the heart attack right in Roseto had reached the national average.


Research from Roseto concluded that a close-knit supportive community has a positive impact on health.


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