HOUSTON — If you feel lonesome, you might have a harder time with acute illnesses like common colds, a new study finds.
Researchers at Rice University discovered that people who are lonely are likely to feel lousier when fighting a cold than someone would who is in a relationship or surrounded by a vast network of friends.
“Loneliness puts people at risk for premature mortality and all kinds of other physical illnesses,” says graduate student and study co-author Angie LeRoy in a university release. “But nothing had been done to look at an acute but temporary illness that we’re all vulnerable to, like the common cold.”
To reach their conclusion, the research team sampled a group of 159 individuals, aged 18-to-55, from a larger study. Nearly 60 percent of those examined were men. The participants were intentionally given a cold via virus-laden nasal drops, and then quarantined in a hotel room for five days.
Each participant was evaluated on two popular metrics gauging social attitude and behavior: the Short Loneliness Scale and the Social Network Index— both prior to and throughout the duration of the study.
What the researchers found was that those who both got sick and screened as lonely— some in the control group may have been found to be the latter, but not the former— had a greater severity of symptoms than those who got sick, but felt socially fulfilled.
To clarify, loneliness did not increase one’s likelihood to get sick, but it did worsen symptoms while one was ill.
In addition, LeRoy says that quality far superseded quantity in terms of social networks. The size of one’s social group had no bearing on their ability to recuperate from an illness.
“You can be in a crowded room and feel lonely. That perception is what seems to be important when it comes to these cold symptoms,” she adds.
Coming into the study, it was known that “different psycho-social factors like feeling rejected or feeling left out or not having strong social bonds with other people do make people feel worse physically, mentally and emotionally,” says LeRoy.
The researchers argue that their findings warrant physicians taking a more holistic approach when it comes to treating acute illnesses. Taking “psychological factors into account at intake on a regular basis… would definitely help [doctors] understand the phenomenon when the person comes in sick,” comments lead researcher Chris Fagundes in the release.
Individuals should also strive to be more socially active, LeRoy says.
“If you build those networks — consistently working on them and your relationships — when you do fall ill, it may not feel so bad,” she argues.
The study was published in the journal Health Psychology.