March 24, 2014

     When I asked a wise friend his thoughts about loneliness, the first words out of David Fore’s mouth were: “Being lonely is different than being alone.” David is a person who can be completely content when he is alone. He pointed out the importance of a person being his or her own best friend. He asks this question: “How can I be lonely when I am a part of all this – soaring hawks and shimmering stars?”  To David the Holy Spirit is our connectedness with all that is about us.

     Although loneliness definitely is different than being alone, one of the effects of loneliness is that the lonely person feels alone. He or she may be in the presence of thousands of people at a ballgame, and feel alone. He or she may be in a military unit in Afghanistan or Iraq and feel afraid, isolated, completely alone and lonely. Or a person may be in a college chemistry class with 200 other folks and feel frightened, alone and lonely. Loneliness is primarily an attitude of mind, not a statement as to how many people are in close proximity. 

     One of the reasons loneliness is important to take seriously is that loneliness and depression are two peas in a pod. Loneliness is a potential problem for people of all ages. But the causes, means of preventing and treatments for this state of mind that can lead in some individuals to serious depression vary from case to case.

     How serious is loneliness? Pope Francis is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most respected commentators on the important issues of the day. He thinks loneliness is quite serious. Recently he said “The most serious of the evils today are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.”

Among the health risks of loneliness are the following:

  • Depression and suicide
  • Cardiovascular disease and stroke
  • Increased stress levels
  • Decreased memory and learning
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Poor decision-making
  • Alcoholism and drug abuse
  • The progression of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Altered brain function
  • Less exercise

    This list comes from John Cacioppo, co-author of the book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection in an interview with U.S. News and World Report.

     Next week’s column will discuss some of the things a person can do to minimize loneliness and some of the things friends, parents, children, fellow workers, physicians and nurses can do to help others suffering from the feeling of loneliness.

     In the meantime, are you lonely or are you alone? How do you deal with the serious issue of loneliness? And what do you consciously do to help others who are experiencing this attitude/feeling of loneliness?

Bob Hatcher

Robert A. Hatcher M.D., M.P.H.

Emeritus Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics

Emory University School of Medicine

Atlanta, Georgia