SCIENCE has many uses, but it doesn’t often produce handy pick-up lines. Recent work on the genetics of disease, however, suggest a way of opening a conversation with that solitary attractive stranger in a bar: loneliness can make you ill.
Lonely people, it seems, are at greater risk than the gregarious of developing illnesses associated with chronic inflammation, such as heart disease and certain cancers. According to a paper published last year in the Public Library of Science, Medicine, the effect on mortality of loneliness is comparable with that of smoking and drinking. It examined, and combined the results of, 148 previous studies that followed some 300,000 individuals for an average period of 7.5 years each, and controlled for factors such as age and pre-existing illness. It concluded that, over such a period, a gregarious person has a 50% better chance of surviving than a lonely one.
Steven Cole of the University of California, Los Angeles, thinks he may know why this is so. He told the AAAS meeting in Washington, DC, about his work studying the expression of genes in lonely people. Dr Cole harvested samples of white blood cells from both lonely and gregarious people. He then analysed the activity of their genes, as measured by the production of a substance called messenger RNA. This molecule carries instructions from the genes telling a cell which proteins to make. The level of messenger RNA from most genes was the same in both types of people. There were several dozen genes, however, that were less active in the lonely, and several dozen others that were more active. Moreover, both the less active and the more active gene types came from a small number of functional groups.
Broadly speaking, the genes less active in the lonely were those involved in staving off viral infections. Those that were more active were involved in protecting against bacteria. Dr Cole suspects this could help explain.