Sunday, January 20, 2013

Loneliness harms our ability to fight off infections

Scientists have found a relationship between being lonely and the performance of the immune system. It was already known that factors such as stress negatively influence the body's ability to keep itself safe from introducing bacteria and viruses, but it is peculiar that a lack of social contact has a similar effect. Nevertheless this may be one of the factors that explains why some people get sick from an infection, while others seem unaffected.

To assess the effect of loneliness on the immune response during an infection, a study was conducted on breast cancer survivors. Each of the participants was infected with Epstein-Barr virus and cytomegalovirus. This may sound serious, but these two viruses are commonly infecting people without being detected, and a high percentage of the population is actually a carrier. Both of them are members of the herpes family of viruses.

For each participant, the immune response to these herpes viruses was measured. According to the scientists, that are employed by the Ohio State University, it appears that breast cancer patients that are on average lonelier, produce more antibodies in response to the viruses. When protecting the body against invaders, the immune system produces antibodies that bind to microbes to neutralize them. A higher level of antibodies may mean that the viral activity in lonelier participants is higher. In addition, the increased activity of the immune system was linked to symptoms such as fatigue and pain.

The scientists also measured the levels of various other molecules associated with the workings of the immune system, and found them to differ between lonely participants and those who are not lonely. Taken together, it appears as if the immune system is not as tightly regulated as should be in lonely people. However, how the underlying mechanism works is unclear, and it may also be confounded by age: it is known that the immune response gets less accurate as we age, which means that the actual effect of the social component is not yet clear.

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