A doença da solidão

the sickness of loneliness

“Being alone is the original condition of every human being. Each of us is alone in the world.”

The quote, from the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), recorded in Ser e Tempo, reflects a modern view that loneliness is natural, part of human life.

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But the recent release of a study by Brigham Young University (United States) reinforces the much older thesis of another philosopher, the Greek Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC), which stated that man is a social being and needs others, so he meets in community.

According to the study “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality”, a solitary life can have direct consequences for human health, and would be a risk factor when it comes to longevity. The result further endorses the negative view that society has always had about loneliness, and which has only worsened with the era of “social beings” and hyper-connected through networks.

The study, led by Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad of the university’s Department of Psychology, is a meta-analysis of the health database of three million patients. The researchers concluded that loneliness and social isolation are as harmful to health as obesity or drug addiction, for example. The result was published in the scientific journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

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According to Julianne, the effect is as valid for those who actually live alone as for those who feel that way, even if they are surrounded by people. Age, gender, social class and pre-existing diseases were considered variables and, according to the research team, do not change the result.

In addition to depression, historically associated with loneliness, other ailments are more common in those who are socially isolated, such as low immunity, heart problems, poor physical conditioning, memory loss or increased blood pressure.

One explanation is that, often, the fact that the person feels without company or without a “meaning in life” no longer encourages them to undergo routine exams and to take more care of their own health, which increases the chance of development of silent diseases. In the US, one in five people say they suffer from loneliness.

Parallels with vices

Julianne had previously published a study pointing out that a lack of social connections – friends, family, colleagues, neighbors – would be as unhealthy as being an alcoholic or smoking 15 cigarettes a day and more harmful than not exercising. At the time, the study had such an impact in the US that TV First Lady Oprah Winfrey launched the #JustSayHello campaign to encourage people to connect more often with others, even with unknown.

The study released now, with twice the number of people and medical data compared to the previous one, ended up reinforcing the importance of trying to prevent people from feeling alone. As the number of individuals living alone grows around the world, including Brazil, Julianne highlights a potential risk related to public health. “With the increase in loneliness, we foresee the possibility of an epidemic associated with this feeling in the future”, she says in an interview with PLANETA.


Middle-aged people suffer more from loneliness than the elderly

The last census by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), in 2010, revealed that 12.1% of Brazilians live alone. In the previous survey, the proportion was 9.2%. On a global scale, there was an 80% increase between 1996 and 2011 in the number of people alone, according to a survey by Euromonitor International, currently representing an estimated 277 million individuals.

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According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, reversing these effects of loneliness will be a challenge, but her team of researchers is rightfully working on another meta-analysis to identify what actions could work. One of them, to create a feeling of social support, would be to live with pets, but the topic still requires further study. “There is already evidence that pets can help lower blood pressure, for example,” she notes.

And anyone who thinks that diseases associated with loneliness would be more common in the elderly is wrong. The study showed just the opposite. Middle-aged adults would be suffering more than individuals over 65. There is still no definitive explanation, but, among the hypotheses raised, it is considered that middle age coincides with the period of retirement, which could trigger that feeling of “lack of meaning” in life and, from there, the neglect with the health that this feeling entails.

Cause or consequence?

Orestes Forlenza, professor in the psychiatry department at the University of São Paulo (USP) School of Medicine, recalls that the association of loneliness with physical and mental illness is nothing new. Loneliness, he explains, can lead to depression and it is clinically proven that depressed people are more likely to develop cancer, heart disease, infections, have low immunity and suffer from pain in general.

But, when commenting on Julianne’s study, Forlenza questions whether the cause and effect relationship could not be inverse, that is, whether loneliness would not be a behavioral expression of a preexisting disease, such as agoraphobia, irritability, difficulty in orienting in environments or an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Another point raised by him is the influence of urban issues on people’s health, since the community of individuals who live alone is larger in large centers, where everyday life tends to provide a worse quality of life.

“From now on it would be normal to observe a ‘contemporary syndrome of loneliness’, even due to the overvaluation of virtual social relationships, but not necessarily to the point of constituting a case of public health”, says Forlenza. Isabel Tatit, psychoanalyst and doctoral student in clinical psychology at USP, is quite critical of the Brigham Young University study.

“I imagine that in a few years, loneliness will no longer be considered a feeling or an experience that everyone experiences in a way, but a disease, just as sadness soon turned into depression”evaluates.

Isabel argues that it is difficult to establish criteria for a feeling and that we must be careful not to exaggerate.

“Why turn loneliness into a pathology? The rush to label a malaise is evident in order to create new pathologies”, analyze.

The doctoral student considers that the issues of loneliness and social isolation are important, but care must be taken not to generalize and make these experiences a pathology.

“The ‘pathologization’ has effects in the social field. Medication abuse, regulation of what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘disease’, stigmatization of those who prefer to be alone, or just those who are more shy.”

She points out: “Loneliness cannot be a social symptom of a society that values ​​too much popularity, leadership, articulate people, people who have many friends on social media. This is a contemporary ideal.”

#sickness #loneliness

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