Over the course of the past century, the Western culture has faced numerous health epidemics, from obesity to opioids. Today we are facing an epidemic of a different nature. The epidemic of loneliness.
We're more connected than ever, but are we feeling more alone? In the last 50 years, rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States. In a survey of over 20,000 American adults, it was found that almost half of respondents reported feeling alone, left out, and isolated. Further, one in four Americans shared that they rarely feel understood, and one in five people believe they rarely or never feel not close to people. Loneliness is on the rise for Americans regardless of geographic location, gender, race, or ethnicity.
Human beings did not evolve to be alone. Sociality plays a fundamental part in the wellbeing of Homo sapiens. Conversely, social isolation and loneliness are known risk factors for premature death, more so than being obese (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). Individuals who feel socially isolated and alone also have higher rates of cardiovascular disease, alcoholism and suicidality, physical diseases related to stress and compromised immune function, and in later life, greater risk of degenerative dementia. Even worse, researchers have observed that geriatric individuals who are considered lonely have a 45% increased risk of mortality (Leland, 2012; Perissinotto, Stijacic Cenzer and Covinsky, 2012).
Moreover, lonely individuals experience reductions in reasoning and creativity. In addition to these reduced abilities, loneliness affects workplace productivity, as lonely individuals report less job satisfaction and are more likely to face unemployment. Not surprisingly, loneliness is commonly correlated with mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression. Similarly, loneliness is often associated with poor coping mechanisms, such as compulsive technology use, smoking, and self-harm. In other words, loneliness has both physical and psychological implications, many of which could be long term.
Alone versus Lonely
Before determining yourself as lonely, there is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. Being alone and feeling lonely are not mutually dependent. Loneliness is a subjective experience, a feeling of sadness stemming from isolation or abandonment. But, a person can be alone without feeling lonely, since alone describes a state of being and lonely describes an emotional response to one's circumstance. For example, most people don't feel sad when they go to the restroom by themselves. A person can be alone in the sense that no other people are present, or alone in the sense that they are unaccompanied, even in a crowd.
When assessing loneliness, introverted and extroverted personalities should be taken into account, because some people enjoy the presence of being alone with themselves, whereas others are dependent on others to cope with not being by themselves. Being at either end of the spectrum, whether it is total isolation or complete dependence, is not considered a healthy behavioral pattern.
Factors Influencing Loneliness
The predictors of loneliness is the basis for the identification of factors that cause and contribute to loneliness. The are three broad categories that influence the feeling of loneliness:
These categories may be subdivided into multiple factors that increase loneliness:
While it is impossible to avoid loneliness completely, it may be alleviated. It is recommended to investigate the contributory factors towards loneliness because knowledge of these may substantially lessen the impact of loneliness on people's mental health status. Such knowledge will contribute to an improved quality of life, productivity and health.
Sleep Deprivation-Induced Loneliness
The "loneliness phenotype" can be triggered by sleep deprivation. Researchers have observed that a lack of sleep induces critical changes within the brain, altering behavior and emotions, while also disturbing essential metabolic processes and influencing the expression of immune-related genes. The end result is that people who are sleep-deprived avoid social interaction. This asocial profile is recognizable by other people, who, in turn, shun the sleep-deprived people in a psychosocial loop that perpetuates in a vicious cycle of loneliness and other mental health disorders.
Some Solutions to Loneliness
Ali, S. (2018). What You Need to Know About the Loneliness Epidemic. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/modern-mentality/201807/what-you-need-know-about-the-loneliness-epidemic [Accessed 1 Sep. 2019].
Harris, R. (2015). Are we lonelier than ever?. [online] The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/the-loneliness-epidemic-more-connected-than-ever-but-feeling-more-alone-10143206.html [Accessed 1 Sep. 2019].
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., Baker, M., Harris, T. and Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), pp.227-237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352
Leland, K. (2012). Loneliness Linked to Serious Health Problems and Death Among Elderly. [online] UC San Francisco. Available at: https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2012/06/98644/loneliness-linked-serious-health-problems-and-death-among-elderly [Accessed 1 Sep. 2019].
Perissinotto, C., Stijacic Cenzer, I. and Covinsky, K. (2012). Loneliness in Older Persons. Archives of Internal Medicine, 172(14). https://doi.org/10.1001/archinternmed.2012.1993
Ben Simon, E. and Walker, M. (2018). Sleep loss causes social withdrawal and loneliness. Nature Communications, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-05377-0
What is the fastest way to health? It's simply honesty being honest with yourself. We each have four doctors within ourselves: Dr. Happiness, which is what is our concept of what makes us happy (what am you living for?); Dr. Quiet which is how do you create adequate rest to regenerate yourself to have a clear mind and to let my body recover from any stress; Dr. Diet (how do you tune into your body's particular nutritional needs?); and Dr. Movement, which is the difference between Working Out and Working In and putting those movement types to use in your life.
Have you ever wondered what the health impact of a stressful day was? Will you perform well during your long run or training session tomorrow morning? Is there anything you can do today that would improve your ability to have a better day tomorrow? HRV may be a piece of data that could help you answer these questions.
What is HRV?
HRV is simply a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat, also known as the RR interval. This variation is controlled by a primitive part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS works regardless of our desire and regulates, among other things, our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. The ANS is subdivided into two large components, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight mechanism and the relaxation response.
The brain is constantly processing information in a region called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus, through the ANS, sends signals to the rest of the body either to stimulate or to relax different functions. It responds not only to a poor night of sleep, or that sour interaction with your boss, but also to the exciting news that you got engaged, or to that delicious healthy meal you had for lunch. Our body handles all kinds of stimuli and life goes on. However, if we have persistent instigators such as stress, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, dysfunctional relationships, isolation or solitude, and lack of exercise, this balance may be disrupted, and your fight-or-flight response can shift into overdrive.
Why Monitor HRV?
HRV is a noninvasive way to identify these ANS imbalances. If a person’s system is in more of a fight-or-flight mode, the variation between subsequent heartbeats is low. If one is in a more relaxed state, the variation between beats is high. In other words, the healthier the ANS the faster you are able to switch gears, showing more resilience and flexibility. Over the past few decades, research has shown a relationship between low HRV and worsening depression or anxiety. A low HRV is even associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease (Buccelletti et al., 2009; Tsuji et al., 1994).
People who have a high HRV may have greater cardiovascular fitness and be more resilient to stress. HRV may also provide personal feedback about your lifestyle and help motivate those who are considering taking steps toward a healthier life. It is fascinating to see how HRV changes as you incorporate more mindfulness, meditation, sleep, and especially physical activity into your life. For those who love data and numbers, this can be a convenient way to track how your nervous system is reacting not only to the environment, but also to your emotions, thoughts, and feelings.
The gold standard to measure HRV is to analyze a long strip of an electrocardiogram, the test that occurs frequently in medical offices where wires are attached to the chest. But over the past few years, several companies have created heart rate monitors that sync with apps that do something similar. The accuracy of these methods is still under scrutiny, but the technology is improving substantially. A word of caution is that there are no agencies regulating these devices, thus they may not be as accurate as claimed to be. With that said, the easiest and cheapest way to check HRV is to buy a chest strap heart monitor (e.g., Polar H10) and download a free app (e.g., Elite HRV) to analyze the data. The chest strap monitor tends to be more accurate than wrist or finger devices. Check your HRV in the mornings after you wake up, a few times a week, and track for changes as you incorporate healthier interventions.
Tracking HRV may be a great tool to motivate behavioral change for some. HRV measurements can help create more awareness of how you live and think, and how your behavior affects your nervous system and bodily functions. While it obviously can’t help you avoid stress, it could help you understand how to respond to stress in a healthier way. While there are questions about measurement accuracy and reliability, if you decide to use HRV as another piece of data, do not get too confident if you have a high HRV, or too scared if your HRV is low. Think of HRV as a preventive tool, a visual insight into the most primitive part of your brain.
Far from the metronome we might assume it to be, the healthiest heart beat follows a fractal pattern, with varying lengths of time separating each pulse (Tapanainen et al., 2002; Yaniv, Y., Lyashkov, A. E., Lakatta, E. G., 2013). A higher HRV suggests a relaxed, low-stress physiological milieu, while a lower HRV indicates a need for recovery, rest, and sleep. Therefore, in order to increase HRV, generally speaking, a more relaxed, low-stress environment is desirable. While there are a number of ways to reduce stress and increase relaxation, here are some examples that have been observed to increase HRV:
The only other strategy that has so many research-baked benefits for longevity is long-term calorie restriction, which requires a significant long-term reduction in the amount of food you eat so that you are essentially living on the brink of starvation. Compliance with calorie-restricted diets is abysmal. Fortunately, there are many ways to fast, and there is likely a form of fasting out there that you will be able to tolerate and incorporate into your life. It's important for you to remember that fasting can provide nearly identical benefits without the pain, suffering, and compliance challenges of calorie restriction.
Instead of regulating how much food you eat, as with long-term calorie restriction, you only need to modify when you eat - and of course wisely choose the foods you do eat.Simply cycling between periods of eating and fasting on a daily, weekly, or monthly schedule has been shown to provide many of the same benefits as long-term calorie restriction. Choosing when to eat and when to fast in this way is known as "intermittent fasting."
"Don't eat less - eat less often."
Undoubtedly, the amount of time that infants and toddlers spend on electronic devices is on the rise. Family ownership of touch screen devices has risen from 7% in 2011 to 71% in 2014 (OfCom, 2014). It is well known that the heavy use of devices, such as tablets, and other electronics, including TV and videogames, contributes to poor sleep. Sleep is the dominant activity of an infant and plays an important role in neurodevelopment and synaptic plasticity.
For infants and toddlers, touchscreen devices offer an attractive source of stimulation, and their portability allows for a wide range of use across multiple settings. However, the widespread use of devices in this age group has raised serious concerns for parents, educators and policy makers, as the potential impact of touchscreen use on toddler development, such as sleep, remains unknown. In addition, research into the long-term impact of poor sleep during early development remains limited. Yet, findings so far coincide, linking shorter sleep duration to negative developmental outcomes. The majority of studies (~90%) show a consistent pattern linking increased screen time with shorter total sleep time and delayed bedtime. As a result, recent guidelines have recommended screens to be kept out of a child’s bedroom specifically because of the potential impact they may have on sleep (OfCom, 2014).
Given the evidence that:
- media use is linked to poor sleep in older children and adults,
- touchscreen use in infants/toddlers is highly prevalent, and
- sleep plays a prominent role in early cognitive and brain development,
A recent meta-analytic review identified 20 studies in children and adolescents aged between 6 and 19, and found strong and consistent evidence for detrimental effects of portable touchscreen devices on sleep quality and quantity (Carter, Rees, Hale, Bhattacharjee, & Paradkar, 2016). All studies used parent questionnaires, and have reported a significant effect of screen time on sleep: increased amount of TV viewing was associated with parent-reported sleep problems, shorter night-time sleep duration, reduced quality of sleep, and irregular naptime and bedtime schedules, adjusting for known confounds including socioeconomic status (SES).
Using a large scale survey, researchers have started to investigate the relationship between touchscreen use and sleep in infants and toddlers between 6 and 36 months of age. Parents were asked to report on the average duration of their child’s daytime and night-time sleep, the time taken for their child to fall asleep, as well as the frequency of night awakenings, to obtain a comprehensive account of infant/toddler sleep patterns.
The UK-based survey on 715 families, reported that 75% of toddlers between 6 months and 3 years of age use a touchscreen on a daily basis. The researchers found that the prevalence of daily use increases substantially with age, from 51% in 6- to 11-month-old infants to 92.05% by 25–36 months. Among users, daily usage increased with age from 8.53 minutes a day (6–11 months) to 45 minutes a day (26–36 months). The average touchscreen usage in this sample is 24.44 minutes.
There was a significant association between touchscreen use and duration of sleep at night, and sleep onset (the type it takes to falls asleep), with increased touchscreen use associated with decreased night-time sleep, increased daytime sleep and a longer sleep onset. There was no significant association between touchscreen usage and frequency of night awakenings. Results also showed that increased touchscreen use was associated with decreased overall amount of sleep. The researchers concluded that every additional hour of touchscreen use is associated with an overall reduction in sleep of 15.6 minutes.
The blue wavelengths emitted by electronic devices—which are beneficial during daylight hours because they boost attention, reaction times, and mood—seem to be the most disruptive at night. While light of any kind can suppress the secretion of melatonin, blue light at night does so more powerfully. Researchers conducted an experiment comparing the effects of 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light to exposure to green light of comparable brightness. The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours). (Harvard, 2015).
It is worth noting that touchscreen use may also have positive effect on some aspects of development. In a recent study of the same sample of infants and toddlers, increased active touchscreen use was associated with earlier achievement in fine motor milestones (Bedford, Saez de Urabain, Cheung, Karmiloff-Smith & Smith, 2016).
Together, these findings emphasize the need for a more in-depth understanding of how to maximize benefits and minimize negative consequences of this modern technology.
Toddlers’ Fine Motor Milestone Achievement Is Associated with Early Touchscreen Scrolling. Front Psychol 7, 1108, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01108
Carter, B., Rees, P., Hale, L., Bhattacharjee, D. & Paradkar, M. S. (2016). Association Between Portable Screen-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.2341
Cheung, C., Bedford, R., Saez De Urabain, I., Karmiloff-Smith, A. and Smith, T. (2017). Daily touchscreen use in infants and toddlers is associated with reduced sleep and delayed sleep onset. Scientific Reports, 7, p.46104. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep46104
Harvard (2015). Blue light has a dark side - Harvard Health. [online] Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side [Accessed 3 Oct. 2017].
Hill, C. M., Hogan, A. M. & Karmiloff-Smith, A. (2007). To sleep, perchance to enrich learning? Arch Dis Child 92, 637–643, https://doi.org/10.1136/adc.2006.096156
Kelly, Y., Kelly, J. & Sacker, A. (2013). Time for bed: associations with cognitive performance in 7-year-old children: a longitudinal population-based study. J Epidemiol Community Health 67, 926–931, https://doi.org/10.1136/jech-2012-202024
Magee, C. A., Gordon, R. & Caputi, P. (2014). Distinct developmental trends in sleep duration during early childhood. Pediatrics 133, e1561–1567, https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2013-3806
Lam, P., Hiscock, H. & Wake, M. (2003). Outcomes of infant sleep problems: a longitudinal study of sleep, behavior, and maternal well-being. Pediatrics 111, e203–207
OfCom. Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report. (2014). Available at https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0027/76266/childrens_2014_report.pdf
Wake, M. et al. (2006). Prevalence, stability, and outcomes of cry-fuss and sleep problems in the first 2 years of life: prospective community-based study. Pediatrics 117, 836–842, https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2005-0775
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