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Good Question: What's So Bad About Being Lonely?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A new survey finds almost three-quarters of people (72 percent) report some level of loneliness. Almost one-third (31 percent) say it happens up to once a week.

The health effects of that loneliness can be as harmful as sitting or smoking for some people. So, what's so bad about being lonely?

"It's pretty rare that I come across a patient who is coming to me for psychiatric treatment that doesn't have some degree of loneliness," says Dr. Matthew Syzdek, a clinical psychologist with Hennepin County Medical Center. "Loneliness is often not a choice. It's often a consequence of life situations."

Research from Dr. John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist and leading loneliness researcher at the University of Chicago, shows air pollution increases a person's chances of dying early by 5 percent. Obesity is 20 percent and loneliness is a whopping 45 percent.

"Some articles say loneliness kills," Syzdek said. "They might be a bit strong, but the research seems pretty conclusive."

Some of the reasoning is physical. For example, someone with health problems who lives alone might not have a person around to help with medical issues or remembering medication.

But that does not cover the full explanation. Loneliness is directly correlated with depression and anxiety. It has been shown to increase a person's level of cortisol, or stress hormone.

Dr. Cacioppo's work has also found the brains of lonely people are on high alert.

"If you're looking for dangers, you're more likely to see dangers whether they exist or not, meaning you're more likely to have negative interactions," Cacioppo said in a 2013 TEDxDesMoines talk.

More people now report loneliness, which can be partly explained by more people now living alone. The U.S. Census Bureau says it was 13 percent of people in 1960. Now it is up to more than a quarter (27 percent) of all U.S. households.

People who have experienced loneliness will tell you there is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. Being alone is in shorter spurts and can often be constructive time, while being lonely is more of a chronic state without social interaction.

"Being alone is usually a productive time for me," says one Minneapolis man. "Being lonely is an unproductive time for me."

For Dr. Syzdek, the important thing to understand is that a person with many friends can still feel lonely.

"Friends are not the antidote to loneliness. It's really the quality of the relationship that matters," he said. "What gives people meaning in life are those authentic relationships were one person can be authentic with the other and that person is warm and empathetic towards them."

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