Loneliness vs. Aloneness: Why one is dangerous to your health

Mother and daughter

Loneliness puts one at risk for a number of serious health issues.

When I transferred to a university 2,000 miles from home my second semester sophomore year, I experienced loneliness for the first time. It emerged as a physical sensation in my chest and developed into a mild depression. Four decades later, I have a large network of friends and family, including four grandchildren. I am never lonely, but I’m often alone, and I relish that quiet time.

What is the difference between being lonely and alone, and why is one dangerous to your health?

Loneliness is a complex, uncomfortable emotional response to lack of companionship and or isolation. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Studies have shown that Americans feel increasingly alone. Two recent studies suggest that our society is in the midst of a dramatic and progressive slide toward disconnection. In the first, using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), Duke University researchers found that between 1985 and 2004 the number of people with whom the average American discussed “important matters” dropped from three to two.  Even more stunning, the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled: In 2004 individuals without a single confidant made up a quarter of those surveyed.

You might have hundreds of friends on Facebook and still be lonely. Because, according to John T. Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and coauthor of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York, 2008), social networking sites provide people with a false sense of connection that often increases loneliness in people who feel alone. Cacioppo says that social media sites should serve as a supplement to personal interaction, rather than as a replacement. He compares connecting on a Web site to eating celery: “It feels good immediately, but it doesn’t give you the same sustenance,” he says. For people who feel satisfied and loved in their day-to-day life, social media can be a reassuring extension. For those who are already lonely, Facebook status updates are just a reminder of how much better everyone else is at making friends and having fun.

How do we feel lonely?

You can be lonely in a marriage in which you have nothing in common with your spouse who is a work addict or involved in activities that don’t include you. You can feel terribly lonely, as I did, after moving to a new city where you don’t know a soul. Or you can feel lonely (and depressed) if you are adjusting to living alone in the home you shared with a deceased or divorced life partner. New parents often experience loneliness during the early months of a newborn’s life if they are on maternity leave and not interacting with their work colleagues.

Loneliness usually includes feeling anxious or depressed, and can manifest as physical, emotional, mental, and social symptoms. But feelings of depression can also lead to loneliness because often a person who is depressed doesn’t have the energy or will to make the effort to socialize.

The health risks

Older adults who describe themselves as lonely have a 59 percent greater risk of functional decline and a 45 percent greater risk of death. Chronic isolation and loneliness have been linked to depression, physical decline, and even shorter lifespans. It’s a problem that can affect anyone: infants, teens or adults, and evidence suggests Americans are more socially isolated now than ever before.

Researchers have found that prolonged isolation is just as dangerous as obesity, smoking 15 cigarettes a day or alcoholism. Isolation and loneliness can:

  • compromise the immune system
  • contribute to depression and anxiety
  • affect sleep
  • increase stress hormones
  • contribute to premature aging
  • increase the risk of a stroke or heart attack
  • contribute to cognitive decline and risk of dementia
  • lead to the admission to nursing homes or the use of emergency services
  • result in death

The problem of social isolation

An estimated one in five adults over age 50—at least 8 million—are affected by isolation. Although the terms isolation and loneliness are often used interchangeably, they’re not exactly the same thing. Loneliness refers to how people perceive their experience and whether they feel isolated. A person can be surrounded by many people but still feel alone. Isolation, though, can be measured by such things as the size of a person’s social network, availability of transportation, and the ability to access resources and information.

Eradicating isolation has been identified by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare as one of its top challenges today.

Factors that put you at risk for isolation “Framework for Isolation in Adults Over 50,” AARP Foundation (May 2012)

  • Living alone*
  • Mobility or sensory impairment*
  • Major life transitions or losses*
  • Low income or limited financial resources
  • Being a caregiver for someone with a serious condition
  • Psychological or cognitive challenges
  • Inadequate social support
  • Rural, unsafe and/or inaccessible neighborhood
  • Transportation access challenges
  • Language barriers
  • Age, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation and/or gender identity barriers

* Primary factors


Why being alone can be a good thing

I am a professional writer and require a lot of alone time. In fact, I prefer to be in my home office without anyone in the house for hours or days at a time so that I can work without interference. I am also a meditator and love to dive deep into the silence. I love to read, I love to play the piano. I enjoy my own companionship. All these things are solitary activities that strengthen my spirit and feed my soul.

Yet, I need to engage socially after a few days of being snowed in, or after a few days of spending hours at my computer. Over my lifetime, I’ve built up a reserve of people to play with, have lunch with, discuss with, and activities to engage in, and I doubt if I’ll ever feel lonely again as I did when I was 19 and moved to a strange city far from my family and friends.

Ways to feel connected

If you are feeling a lonely or isolated, get ahead of the lonely curve now to expand your social network. Don’t put it off. Getting socially connected might take some effort, but it is definitely worth it for so many reasons. You will gain friendship, companionship, better health, and in the process you will be giving of yourself, which is the best gift of all.

Here are some ideas to help you get going:

  • Volunteer at a school, library, hospital, food bank, etc.
  • Attend religious services/spiritual gatherings
  • Join or start a book club.
  • Plan a neighborhood potluck.
  • Stay physically active and join a hiking/walking club.
  • Take a class to learn something new.
  • Join a “New Mom’s Group,” or go to the senior center for a lecture or interesting program.
  • Teach others how to knit, sew, bake, garden, paint, etc.
  • Get involved in a community project or cause.
  • Host a movie night for your neighbors.
  • Learn how to use social media to stay connected with friends and family.
  • Before you give up your keys, learn about transportation options in your town.
  • Consider living in a co-housing community.

I’d love to hear from you. Please send your story of how you stay connected.

“Life is short, make it sweet.”


Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D?


Vitamin D is made in the skin as a result of exposure to sunlight. The problem is, if you live at latitude of 42 degrees (a line approximately between the northern border of California and Boston) the sun’s rays are too low between November and February for your skin to get the sunlight needed for cutaneous vitamin D synthesis.1, 2

If you live at latitude below 34 degrees north (a line between Los Angeles and Columbia, South Carolina) your body can make vitamin D from sun exposure year-long. However, it’s important to expose a large portion of bare skin (like your midriff) to mid-day sun for at least 15 minutes every day. Most people are unable to fit this into their schedule, so vitamin D supplementation is highly recommended, especially since so few foods contain it.

Foods containing vitamin D

Fatty fish such as salmon, trout, tuna and sardines, milk, and fortified cereals provide more than 100 IU per serving. And mushroom is the only food in the produce section that has vitamin D.  But you’d have to eat an awful lot of these foods to get the recommended daily dose of vitamin D, which is 2400 IU, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition.* For instance, you would have to eat at least five servings of salmon a day or drink 20 cups of fortified milk.

Who should take a vitamin D supplement?

The highest levels of vitamin D are naturally found in farmers who spend a lot of time outdoors and in people who take vacations or live in areas that are sunny and warm in winter.

But most people, and especially the elderly, are vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D deficiency is especially common in the elderly. Researchers have found a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and low mood, depression and worse cognitive performance in older adults. In a recent study, 1618 patients who averaged 73.8 years old were tested for vitamin D deficiency. Those with severe vitamin D deficiency were twice as likely to suffer from depression.3

Another study of a cross-section of 80 older adults, 40 with mild Alzheimer’s disease and 40 healthy adults, found that vitamin D deficiency was associated with low mood and impairment on two of four measures of cognitive performance. 58% of the participants had abnormally low vitamin D levels. After adjusting for age, race, gender, and the season in which vitamin D levels were studied, researchers correlated vitamin D deficiency with an active mood disorder. The deficiency was also related to a worse performance on the cognitive performance test called Short Blessed Test (SBY). There was no difference in performance on the Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE). 4


Vital to overall health

We now know that every body cell has a receptor for vitamin D, which is why it is so crucial to overall health. Vitamin D is most commonly known for helping the digestive system absorb calcium and phosphorus. In that way it helps the body build and maintain healthy bones. But it does much more.

Adequate vitamin D is believed to play a role in the reduction of falls, as well as supporting cardiovascular health, a strong immune system and cognitive function. 5

Higher vitamin D intake is associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to research done at the Angers University Hospital in France. Another recent study at the VA medical center in Minneapolis found that low vitamin D levels among older women are associated with a higher risk of cognitive impairment and a higher risk of cognitive decline. Both studies were published in the Dec. 3, 2012 issue of the Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences.

Babies born with low levels of vitamin D may be more likely to develop multiple sclerosis (MS) later in life than babies with higher levels of vitamin D, according to a study published in the November 30, 2016, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Vitamin D

  • Regulates blood serum calcium and phosphate levels
  • Stimulates calcification of the bone
  • Increases absorption of calcium from the intestines
  • Decreases excretion of calcium from the kidneys
  • Supports T-cell production and the immune system
  • Has been shown to reduce risk of some forms of cancer, MS, diabetes and cardiovascular disease (6-9)
  • Plays a role in regulation of blood pressure
  • Supports immunity and helps reduce stress

Vitamin D deficiency may exacerbate osteopenia, osteoporosis, muscle weakness, fractures, autoimmune diseases, infectious diseases, multiple sclerosis and cardiovascular disease, cognitive function.

Recent studies have suggested that women and men who increase their vitamin D intake above 400 IU of vitamin D a day reduce risk of developing multiple sclerosis by approximately 40%. 7

Also, scientists theorize that one of the reasons that influenza occurs in the wintertime is that we do not manufacture enough vitamin D, and the resulting vitamin D deficiency might promote our susceptibility to the flu virus. 10

How much is enough?

*According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition (March 9, 2009) adults need at least four times the current recommended dose of 600 IU of vitamin D. 11

In 2008 The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) doubled its recommended minimum intake for infants, children and teens from 200 IU to 400 IU per day. 12

Why are co-factors important?        

Other nutrients are needed in order for Vitamin D to work optimally in the body. Make sure your nutritional supplement contains the following:

  • VITAMIN D3 (Colecalciferol 1,000 IU/g.) Vitamin D refers to two biologically inactive precursors – D3, also known as cholecalciferol, and D2, also known as ergocalciferol. Vitamin D3 is produced in the skin on exposure to UVB radiation (290 to 320 nm), and is more bioactive than D2.
  • BORON is involved in the action of Vitamin D on the cell wall. Most Americans do not consume enough of the foods that contain boron, such as green vegetables, fruit, nuts and whole grains.
  • MAGNESIUM–All the enzymes that metabolize Vitamin D require magnesium. It is also required in each of the steps concerned with replication, transcription and translation of genetic information, and thus it is also needed for the genetic mechanism of action of Vitamin D.
  • ZINC –A zinc molecule sits at the base of the vitamin D receptors on the cells in your body, which helps them to function properly.
  • VITAMIN K-2 helps direct Vitamin D to calcify bones while preventing the calcification of organs and blood vessels.
  • VITAMIN A —Vitamin D requires Vitamin A to bind to the Vitamin D receptor.

So unless you are going on a long vacation this winter to a tropical climate, make sure you take enough vitamin D to protect your overall health and reduce your risk of getting the flu.


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  3. Lapid MI, Cha SS, Takahashi PY.Clin Interv Aging. 2013;8:509-14. doi: 10.2147/CIA.S42838. Epub 2013 May 3.
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  8. Penckofer S, Kouba J, Wallis DE, Emanuele MA. Vitamin D and diabetes: let the sunshine in. Diabetes Educ. 2008 Nov-Dec;34(6):939-40, 942, 944 passim.
  9. Wang TJ, Pencina MJ, Booth SL, Jacques PF, Ingelsson E, Lanier K, Benjamin EJ, D’Agostino RB, Wolf M, Vasan RS. Vitamin D deficiency and risk of cardiovascular disease. Circulation. 2008 Jan 29;117(4):503-11. Epub 2008 Jan 7.
  10. Cannell, J.J., Vieth, R., Umhau J.C., et.al. Epidemic influenza and vitamin D. Epidemiology and Infection (2006), 134:6:1129-1140 Cambridge University Press
  11. Nelson, M.L. Blum, J.M, Hollis, B.W., Rosen, C., Sullivan, S.S. Supplements of 20 ug/d Cholecalciferol Optimized Serum 25-Hydroxyvitamin D Concentrations in 80% of Premenopausal Women in Winter. Journal of Nutrition, March 9, 2009, Volume 139, Pages 540-546, doi:10.3945/jn.108.096180
  12. Wagner, C.L., Greer, F.R. Prevention of Rickets and Vitamin D Deficiency in Infants, Children, and Adolescents. Pediatrics 122 No. 5 November 2008, pp. 1142-1152 (doi:10.1542/peds.2008-1862)