Transient loneliness also has harmful effects on health

Based on a large sample of the Spanish population, researchers from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM) and the group of Jose Luis Ayuso at CIBER Mental Health (CIBERSAM) analysed loneliness and its relationship with health. The results suggest that both chronic and transient loneliness have a negative effect on our health status

It is already known that loneliness is associated with a worse health status. However, so far, there has been few studies that have attempted to identify how the health of people who experience different patterns of loneliness, specifically, transient and chronic loneliness, changes over time.

A group of researchers from CIBERSAM and the Department of Psychiatry at UAM, World Health Organization collaborating centre, had two objectives: to analyse the existence of different patterns of loneliness and to know whether these patterns influenced equally our health status.
‘A quarter of participants reported experiencing feelings of loneliness at the beginning of the study. Both those who suffered from transient loneliness and those affected by chronic loneliness had a worse health status three years later compared to those individuals without feelings of loneliness’, says Natalia Martín-María, Ph.D, first author of the manuscript.

results, published in Psychology and Health, are based on 2,390 participants from all the autonomous communities of Spain, interviewed twice with an interval of three years.

The researchers defined two patterns using a questionnaire to measure loneliness: chronic, if people reported feelings of loneliness in both moments of the study; and transient, if they reported this type of feelings only in one of the two moments analysed. Moreover, they answered several questions related to their health, and they carried out several physical and cognitive tests such as grip strength, walking speed, and immediate and delayed verbal recall, among others.

Chronic loneliness is worse for health

Researchers also observed that people experiencing chronic loneliness had the worst health status, both at the beginning of the study and at the follow-up. The same results were obtained even considering depression, which is confused with loneliness on many occasions.

Previous studies had already underlined the association between loneliness and health. Our study contributes to the differentiation of loneliness patterns, which could benefit from different therapeutic interventions.

‘People who experience transient loneliness, related to events such as retirement or widowhood, can improve through the adaptation to their new circumstances and the increase of recreational and social activities. On the other hand, individuals suffering from chronic loneliness may need help from cognitive therapy to deal with the loss of perceived control caused by loneliness maintained over the years’, explains Martín-María.

Although researchers observed that loneliness may be reversible in some cases, as with the transient pattern, more studies are needed to distinguish people who experience transient loneliness from those who have chronic loneliness in order to better differentiate individuals who would benefit from a specific intervention from those who are experiencing an temporary but positive state of loneliness.

‘More political and social measures are needed to curb loneliness, avoid its chronification and reduce its harmful effects on health’, concludes the researcher.

Martín-María N, Caballero FF, Miret M, Tyrovolas S, Haro JM, Ayuso-Mateos JL, and Chatterji S (2019) Differential impact of transient and chronic loneliness on health status. A longitudinal study. Psychol. & Health. doi:10.1080/08870446.2019.1632312

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