Nov. 15, 2001
Vol. 21 No. 5

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    NIA will fund study about loneliness, its physical risks

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    A team of University researchers will receive $7.5 million in funding from the National Institute on Aging of the Department of Health and Human Services to support their work, which seeks to understand what many doctors have suspected for generations: People who feel lonely have more health problems and a shorter-life expectancy than those who do not feel lonely.

    The NIA grant, which will support the University’s Institute for Mind and Biology and its project “Social Isolation, Loneliness, Health and the Aging Process,” is especially significant because it expands the effort to understand loneliness at a time when an increasing number of Americans are living alone, said John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and the project’s director.

    According to U.S. Census Bureau projections, by 2010, 31 million Americans will be living alone, a 40 percent increase from 1980.

    In recent years, University researchers have demonstrated that loneliness can alter a person’s cardiac functions, disrupt sleeping patterns, cause higher blood pressure and even diminish a person’s ability to fight diseases. “We now know that loneliness is, in fact, a predictor of morbidity and mortality,” Cacioppo said.This grant, which supports the work of more than a dozen researchers through 2006, will allow the research team to greatly expand their understanding of the social and psychological factors that create a sense of loneliness and how loneliness regulates the body’s functions.

    John Cacioppo

    “This is not simply about being alone,” Cacioppo said. “Some people can be physically isolated, yet not feel a sense of loneliness. Conversely, people can be married and have children, yet feel excluded and alone. We’re focusing on people who perceive themselves to be socially isolated or disconnected.”

    The federal funding furthers an analytical strategy that approaches loneliness from three different perspectives: sociological, psychological and biological.

    Linda Waite

    Cacioppo will lead the social psychological and physiological part of the research, studying 230 adults between the ages of 50 and 64, over a five-year period. Cacioppo will attempt to identify the psychological feeling that regulates the body’s hormones and its nervous and immune systems. He also will seek to identify the social events that trigger a person’s sense of loneliness and the events that curb those feelings.

    Linda Waite, Professor in Sociology, will study the social and community factors that influence loneliness. A demographer, who also is Director of the Center on Aging at the National Opinion Research Center, Waite will search for an understanding of loneliness in a broader context by analyzing data from the next wave of the “Health and Retirement Survey,” a longitudinal study of 20,000 Americans over age 50.

    Martha McClintock, the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology, will lead the third piece of the study, evaluating the immunological consequences of loneliness.

    Martha McClintock

    Using an animal model, McClintock will focus on how a sense of social isolation influences specific biological mechanisms and increases an individual’s risk for specific infectious, malignant and inflammatory diseases at the end of a life span. McClintock’s earlier research found that socially isolated rats have a 40 percent higher chance of developing breast cancer and other illnesses than rats that were not socially isolated.

    As an interdisciplinary project, Cacioppo said, findings learned in one component of the project will play an important role in determining the research in the other two components.

    “This will really allow me to go off in a whole new direction,” said Waite, who already is beginning to apply ideas from Cacioppo’s research by adding questions on loneliness to the “Health and Retirement Survey.”

    The University’s Institute of Mind and Biology has pioneered this interdisciplinary approach to loneliness studies, Cacioppo added.

    Traditionally, researchers focused on biological mechanisms and how they affect people psychologically and physically. Chicago researchers are looking at the causal relationships in a different way. “We’re looking at social events and interactions,” said McClintock, “and how they regulate the fundamental mechanisms of biology and psychology. This is a whole different way of looking at the relationship between the mind and biology.”