Loneliness and Sleep Deprivation

I’ve written a few times about the loneliness epidemic that has become a major health issue not just in the U.S., but around the world:

Social isolation and loneliness have been associated with major negative health effects in study after study, leading some researchers to consider long-term isolation to be just as bad for longevity as smoking cigarettes. There are also links to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s. For younger people, loneliness can lead to increased levels of stress which creates its own set of health issues.

Feelings of loneliness can also lead to sleep disruption. Research shows that not getting enough sleep, or getting poor-quality sleep, increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

What these studies have in common is that they are trying to measure the affect of loneliness and social isolation of physical and mental health.

A new study, however, at least in terms of sleep deprivation, is looking at the relationship in reverse. In other words, can sleep deprivation lead to feelings of loneliness or social isolation.

The researchers tested the social and neural responses of 18 young adults after a good night’s sleep and after a night of sleep deprivation. While both well-rested and sleep-deprived, the subjects participated in two similar tests meant to gauge their sociability. First, an experimenter would walk towards a subject until the subject signalled that the other person had gotten too close for comfort. Then, while undergoing a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scan, the participants watched videos of a person approaching them; when they felt the person was too close, they pushed a button to stop the video.

The researchers found that when they were sleep deprived, subjects tended to keep the approaching person further away than they did when they were well rested—between 18 and 60 percent further away, in fact. The fMRI scans also showed that sleep deprivation led to changes in areas of the brain that are connected to sociability. When the subjects were operating on less sleep, the videos of the approaching person triggered heightened activity in a neural circuit called the “near space network,” which lights up when we perceive potential threats. Sleep-deprived participants also showed less activity in another brain circuit known as the “theory of mind” network, which is thought to encourage social interaction.

(sidebar: fMRI studies always seem so fascinating; trying to figure out which parts of the brain are working, or “lighting up” while performing certain tasks. I’d love to be a volunteer in one some day.)

Anyway, back to the research study.

The researchers also asked another group of students to keep a sleep log for two nights, and to then report on their quality of sleep. They found that people who reported poor sleep from one night to the next were also more likely to report feeling increased loneliness the next day. People who slept well, by contrast, reported reduced loneliness.

But perhaps more interesting than this finding was the next phase of the study.

The researchers filmed these research subjects answering a series of questions, after both a normal and a sleepless night, and showed the footage to more than 1,000 online volunteers. The volunteers didn’t know that, in some of the clips, the subjects had gone without sleep. They were asked to rate the subjects based on how lonely they seemed, and how likely they were to want to interact with the subjects. The volunteers consistently rated the sleep-deprived participants as looking more lonely and as less “socially desirable”.

And not only that: the volunteers were also asked to rate their own sense of loneliness after watching the clips, and were more likely to report feeling alienated after watching a sleep-deprived person!

So not only did sleep deprivation lead to feelings of loneliness in the sleep-deprived individual, but it had a similar affect on people who interact with the sleep-deprived individual.

While the results of the study are not necessarily conclusive, particularly because of the small sample size, it does offer an intriguing look at the relationship between loneliness and sleep deprivation.

If it does turn out that sleep deprivation can lead to social isolation and loneliness, then this may suggest a possible remedy for feeling lonely – a good night’s sleep.

As one of the researcher’s notes, “just one night of good sleep makes you feel more outgoing and socially confident, and furthermore, will attract others to you.”

And while this study looked at college age students, many of whom do suffer from feelings of loneliness (perhaps due to late night bull sessions and all-night studying), there seem to be implications for the elderly as well.

Many elderly do not sleep well; it would be worthwhile to study what the impact of a good night’s sleep is for the elderly on their feelings of loneliness.

In summary, it seems like we have the classic statistical conundrum – correlation vs causation.

Research seems to suggest that there is a correlation between sleep deprivation and loneliness. But which one causes the other seems to be up for debate. Getting a more definitive answer would allow doctors and others to prescribe the best form of treatment – do you try to fix the sleeping problem and hope that leads to less loneliness, or do you try and fix the loneliness problem, and hope that leads to better sleep.

My suggestion would be to work on both; try and get a better night’s sleep AND do things reduce feelings of loneliness. This way, you’ve got everything covered, and any improvement, whether a better night’s sleep or a lowered feeling of loneliness, can lead to better health outcomes.

Sweet dreams…

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