Loneliness May Affect Genes

Certain Genes May Be More or Less Active in Lonely People, Raising Health Risks

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 13, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 13, 2007 -- Scientists say they've found a genetic "fingerprint" of loneliness that may partly explain why persistent loneliness is unhealthy.

Don’t take the findings the wrong way. The researchers aren't saying that genes doom some people to loneliness and destin others for rich relationships.

Rather, the new loneliness gene research shows that certain genes may be more or less active in lonely people -- and that may dim the health of the lonely.

Don't have oodles of people in your buddy list? Don't worry. It's the quality, not the quantity, of relationships that matters, according to the researchers.

They included Steve Cole, PhD, of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) David Geffen School of Medicine.

Lonely or Not?

Cole and colleagues studied DNA from 14 people aged 50-67 for five years.

Participants got yearly checkups and periodically completed surveys in which they rated their social isolation.

The group included six people who consistently ranked at the top of the loneliness scale and eight people who consistently ranked high for having plenty of rewarding relationships.


Lonely or not, participants shared similar backgrounds. Cole's team also considered their health history and other factors.

Compared with their socially connected peers, the lonely had overactive genes that promote inflammation and cell growth. Lonely people also had underactive genes that control inflammation and cells' life cycle.

Those genetic patterns may show why chronic loneliness has long been linked to poorer health and accelerated aging.

It might be possible to develop treatments to counteract those genetic risks in lonely people, but larger studies are needed to confirm which comes first -- loneliness or shifts in gene activity -- and to study people who aren't at the extremes of loneliness or social connection, Cole's team notes.

Their study appears in the online journal Genome Biology.

(When your soul is lonely does your body feel sicker? Discuss it with others on WebMD's Health Café message board.)

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SOURCES: Cole, S. Genome Biology, September/October 2007; online edition. News release, BioMed Central. News release, UCLA Healthcare.

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