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People who feel lonely are likely to think their cold symptoms are more severe than those who have strong friendships and social networks.
“Loneliness puts people at risk for premature mortality and all kinds of other physical illnesses,” says Angie LeRoy, a graduate student at Rice University who works with psychologist Chris Fagundes. “But nothing had been done to look at an acute but temporary illness that we’re all vulnerable to, like the common cold.”
For a new study, published in Health Psychology, researchers drew a distinction between feeling lonely and actual social isolation.
“This paper is about the quality of your relationships, not the quantity,” LeRoy says. “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.”
To carry out this task, researchers had to find lonely people, isolate them, and then give them a cold.
The researchers assessed a total of 159 people ages 18-55, nearly 60 percent of them men, for psychological and physical health, then gave them cold-inducing nasal drops, and quarantined them for five days in hotel rooms.
The participants, scored in advance on the Short Loneliness Scale and the Social Network Index, were monitored during and after the five-day stay. After adjusting for demographics like gender and age, the season, depressive affect, and social isolation, results showed those who felt lonely were no more likely to get a cold than those who weren’t.
But those who were screened in advance for their level of loneliness and became infected—not all of the participants did—reported a greater severity of symptoms than those recorded in previous studies used as controls. The size of the participants’ social networks appeared to have no bearing on how sick they felt.
“Previous research has shown 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,” LeRoy says. “So we had that general framework to work with.”
The effect may be the same for those under other kinds of stress, Fagundes says. “Anytime you have an illness, it’s a stressor, and this phenomenon would probably occur. A predisposition, whether it’s physical or mental, can be exaggerated by a subsequent stressor. In this case, the subsequent stressor is getting sick, but it could be the loss of a loved one, or getting breast cancer, which are subjects we also study.
“What makes this study so novel is the tight experimental design. It’s all about a particular predisposition (loneliness) interacting with a particular stressor.”
“Doctors should take psychological factors into account at intake on a regular basis,” Fagundes says. “It would definitely help them understand the phenomenon when the person comes in sick.”
The findings are particularly important, “because of the economic burden associated with the common cold,” LeRoy says. “Millions of people miss work each year because of it. And that has to do with how they feel, not necessarily with how much they’re blowing their noses.”
The findings are also an incentive to be more socially active, she says. “If you build those networks—consistently working on them and your relationships—when you do fall ill, it may not feel so bad.”
About the Authors
Additional researchers from Rice, as well as Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Delaware, and the University of Houston are coauthors of the study. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the National Institutes of Health, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award funded the work.
Source: Rice University