Loneliness and Health: Experience, Stress, and Genetics

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchFeeling lonely?  Well, that might make you sick.  The mechanism?  Well, here’s the surprise.  Patterns of genetic expression.

 Here’s the press release from Genome Biology, “People who experience chronically high levels of loneliness show gene-expression patterns that differ markedly from those of people who don’t feel lonely.”  The study’s lead author, Steven Cole, notes: “In this study, changes in immune cell gene expression were specifically linked to the subjective experience of social distance.  The differences we observed were independent of other known risk factors for inflammation, such as health status, age, weight, and medication use. The changes were even independent of the objective size of a person’s social network. What counts, at the level of gene expression, is not how many people you know, it’s how many you feel really close to over time.”   
Please note that these are changes in the gene expression in cells, in this case leukocytes: “The leukocyte transcriptome appears to be remodelled in chronically lonely individuals,” said Dr. Cole.
 Cortisol, the stress hormone, is one candidate for how subjective loneliness impacts immune function.  Cortisol impacts immune activity, and is released from the adrenal glands as part the hypothalamic-anterior pituitary-adrenal cortex (HPA) system.  In other words, the HPA is a brain-body system that can be impacted by subjective experience, among other things.     Mark Flinn, Robert Quinlan and David Leone write in the December 2007 Anthropology News about their research in Dominica.  “Our research on stress and health on children in this rural Dominican community indicates that they are more than twice as likely to become ill during the week following a stressful event than during a week they had not recently experienced any significant stressors…  Analyses of data on children’s activities, their reported psychological states, growth, morbidity (illness) and salivary cortisol indicate the importance of family and other kin as both a source of and a buffer for psychosocial stress and associated health effects.” As Flinn (2007) writes elsewhere, “Traumatic family events were associated temporally with elevated cortisol levels… Children born and raised in household environments in which mothers have little or no mate or kin support were at greatest risk for abnormal cortisol profiles and associated health problems.  Because socioeconomic conditions influence family environments, they have consequences for child health that extend beyond direct material effects (257-258).”

 Be sure to check on Greg’s post on “How Your Mood Affects Your Health” for more on this topic at: https://neuroanthropology.wordpress.com/2007/12/20/how-your-mood-affects-your-health/


 Steve W Cole, Louise C Hawkley, Jesusa M Arevalo, Caroline Y Sung, Robert M Rose and John T Cacioppo (2007). Social regulation of gene expression in humans: glucocorticoid resistance in the leukocyte transcriptome.  Genome Biology 8:R189. 
Download here: http://genomebiology.com/content/pdf/gb-2007-8-9-r189.pdf

 Flinn, Mark V. (2007). Why words can hurt us: Social relationships, stress and health.  In: W. Trevathan, E.O. Smith, & J.J. McKenna, eds., Evolutionary Medicine and Health: New Perspectives.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.  Pp. 242-258.

4 thoughts on “Loneliness and Health: Experience, Stress, and Genetics

  1. I almost envy Daniel that there are SUCH great examples of research into mechanisms of bodily enculturation in medical anthropology. This one, on loneliness and health effects is a fantastic example of how we can trace effects from sociological and cultural scales down to gene expression. I’m struck by the fact that it seems to have a very ‘retro’ ring to it; in a sense, this is ‘culture and personality’ from a radically new, grounded perspective. That is, social patterns of interaction and expectations affect gene-level dynamics and expression (after all, ‘loneliness’ is in part a creation of how much interaction we expect to have — most Brazilians I know would be very ‘lonely’ in conditions that I find necessary to be able to think and write).

    The mainstream of anthropology would probably be okay, albeit a little squeamish as they are with anything vaguely ‘psychological,’ with the notion that different groups cultivate specific emotional, mood, and affective comportments. As I write this, for example, I’m watching the Saturday morning music videos that my daughter left on. It’s clear that certain musical genres are all about cultivating emotional bearings or comportments (I’m reminded of Bourdieu here). In particular, this example goes back to the discussion of adolescent angst in Margaret Mead (which has become concealed by debates about her fieldwork). In fact, she was also asking if patterns of emotional and developmental dynamics were influenced by cultural expectations.

    With what we are learning about emotion and gene expression, psychoneuroimunology, mirror neurons and ’emotional empathy,’ and a host of other dynamics, I wonder how certain generational and peer cultural influences affect long-term emotional state. Don’t get me wrong; I love Dave Grohl, the Presets, Hot Chip, the Hives, etc. as much as the next middle-aged man. But there is clearly an ‘education in emotional comportment,’ complete with compelling vocal portraits of archetypal stances toward the world, embedded in a lot of this music, made all the more compelling with imagery, much of which is focused on powerful presentations of individuals in richly symbolic, extreme emotional-kinesthetic performance.

    I guess I’m wondering if this would be a place where we could also think about the social and cultural generation of loneliness if we were to try to map this entire dynamic system? The medical science research is so powerful and provocative; I want our anthropological contributions about the social and cultural levels of the dynamics to be as compelling.

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