Social isolation and loneliness may have different effects on inflammation

When it comes to excessive inflammation in the body, most people think of factors like eating too much red meat and sugar. A new study out of the University of Surrey, however, has found that not getting enough socialization may also increase inflammation in the body, paving the way for a number of health issues, including memory problems and, farther into the future, problems like cardiovascular disease.

Inflammation isn't inherently bad — it is a vital part of the immune system that helps the body heal. However, when excessive, chronic inflammation is experienced, it can start to cause damage rather than contribute to the repair of damaged tissues. If the inflammation continues over time, it can increase one's risk of developing depression, memory troubles, and even things like cancer.

According to the new study out of the University of Surrey, social isolation is one of many things that can trigger increased inflammation; the research involved analyzing 30 past studies on the topics. The findings indicate that social isolation can cause the body to release C-reactive protein, the same protein that is released soon after an injury.

This negative effect triggered by social isolation was found to be greater in men compared to women; the researchers speculate that this may be due to the differences in how males and females may respond to various social stresses.

The study notes that social isolation and loneliness don't necessarily mean the same thing. Some research suggested that experiencing loneliness may increase levels of cytokine IL-6, which leads to inflammation. University of Surrey Health Psychology Lecturer Dr. Kimberly Smith explained, 'The evidence we examined suggests that social isolation may be linked with inflammation, but the results for a direct link between loneliness and inflammation were less convincing.'

The study found that loneliness may not directly increase inflammation in the body, but rather that it potentially changes how the body's inflammatory system reacts when the lonely individual is experiencing stress. Ultimately, the study found that differing inflammatory markers were linked to different experiences — social isolation versus loneliness, which doesn't necessarily happen at the same time.