GENETIC FINGERPRINT FOR LONELINESS
By Victoria Stern
Monday, June 23, 2008.
Mildred “Mickey” Warhola once dashed to tango lessons in her spare moments between child rearing and fundraising for a charitable foundation.
Now, the 79-year-old retiree uses most of her strength just to maneuver her frail 97-pound frame into a chair in the dimly lit room where she spends her days, mostly alone and incapacitated since the death of a long-time companion eight years ago.
With such severe health problems that have left her housebound, she has found herself increasingly alone over the years as her health has continued to deteriorate. But it may not be her illnesses that have made Warhola more isolated. Recent research suggests that, to the contrary, it may be her increased feelings of isolation that have made her more physically sick.
In the first study of its kind, researcher Steven Cole and his collaborators at UCLA and the University of Chicago have reported that a patient’s subjective experience of loneliness not only can affect the person’s health, as has been shown in previous studies, but can actually trigger a change in the activity of specific genes, causing an increase in inflammation and risk of health problems, from heart disease and viral infections to cancer.
Essentially, Cole and his colleagues have discovered a distinct genetic fingerprint for loneliness.
In his study published in Genome Biology in September 2007, Cole analyzed the activity of genes in 14 participants in the Chicago Health, Aging and Social Relations Study, looking for “conspiracies” among groups of genes in patients who scored in the top and bottom 15 percent of the standard UCLA loneliness scale.
Cole’s findings revealed several differences in how certain genes were expressed between the two groups: chronically lonely individuals over-expressed genes linked to immune system function and inflammation and under-expressed genes involved in the production of antibodies and antiviral responses.
The study may provide an important insight into how our psychological state can play into our biological one, raising the question: How lonely do we have to be to alter the function of our genes?
Based on his study, Cole estimates that people have to be in the top 10 to 20 percent of the loneliness scale to experience loneliness significant enough to impact them genetically. Such levels of social isolation are more constant and intense than just being lonesome for a night – chronic loneliness is incorporated into your daily life and the way you view the world.
Less intense feelings of social isolation may also affect the function of our genes, though this still needs to be explored in more depth.
“It is an interesting study and one more small step in our understanding of how genes and social environment may interact to affect health,” says Robert E. Roberts, professor in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Science Department at the University of Texas, who was not involved in Cole’s study.
“While the study is noteworthy, the generalizability of the results needs to be confirmed by additional studies conducted by other researchers.”
Scientists hope, however, that with more research, understanding the impact of someone’s psychological condition on their genes can facilitate better-targeted treatments than are currently available. For instance, anti-depressants such as Zoloft and Prozac can only take the edge off the pain of chronic loneliness, while something as accessible as aspirin can dampen the physical effects of loneliness by reducing inflammation.
Cole’s findings suggest that the most effective way to help the chronically lonely may not be a pill, but rather in changing the way they experience the world – either through focused psychological therapy or by increasing positive human contact and companionship. But reframing a person’s world view is tricky, with some unwilling or unable to change their lifestyles to improve their psychological condition.
“[It is much] easier to defend people at the biological level than to remodel the social world,” says Cole.
While restructuring our social framework seems unrealistic, to create more effective treatments, it is crucial to understand how our psychological condition alters our genes and to what degree these genetic changes can trigger disease.
As for Warhola, she says she has shown marked psychological improvement since receiving a routine visitor three times a week and a nurse to care for her during the day. She now holds out hope for getting healthy. “One, two, cha-cha-cha!” she shouts, smiling at a visitor.
Victoria Stern is with New York University's School of Journalism. She writes for Scienceline.
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