columnBy Gatonye Gathura
Nairobi — As more 'successful' Kenyans migrate to exclusive residential areas, science shows they could also be moving to an early death.
Aided by technology, this highly mobile class has managed to cut human interaction to a minimum, with meetings replaced by video conferencing and office communication to intra-neting.
At the home front, grandparents, parents and children interact through mobile phones, with the evening family tête-à-tête being replaced by soap operas and the video - even the previously ritualistic church going has been reduced to TV gospel enjoyed on the sofa.
But this social isolation has been shown to biologically impact on the body's most basic internal processes- the activities of the genes.
Scientists now claim they have compelling evidence that lonely people are more likely to get sick and die young because they have unhealthy levels of chronic inflammation, which has been associated with heart and artery disease, arthritis, alzheimer's, cancers and other ills.
A study carried out at the University of California in the US concluded that loneliest people had unhealthy levels of chronic inflammation - all these people had distinct patterns of genetic activity, almost all of it involving the immune system.
The study does not show which came first - the loneliness or the physical traits. But it does suggest there may be a way to help prevent the deadly effects of loneliness, said Steve Cole, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who worked on the study.
The study shows that friends and relatives are not necessarily a bother - the "Mbwa Kali" and other security systems for keeping people away, are. Actually, more people around could mean a longer life.
"We have known for years that there is this epidemiological relationship between social support - how many friends and family members you have around you - and a whole bunch of physical outcomes," he told Reuters.
The new evidence explains why, for example, it is of therapeutic value to have friends and relatives visiting a bed ridden patient. But also these findings raise new questions on the trend where high cost hospitals are moving to offer private rooms for high paying patients as this deny social interaction accrued from amenity wards.
To die prematurely
Many studies of large populations have shown that people who describe themselves as lonely, or as having little social support, are more likely to die prematurely and to have infections, high blood pressure, insomnia and cancer.
"There are two theories - the social provision theory, which basically is about what other people do for you in a tangible, material sense. Like, if I am sick and I have got people around me, they will take me to the doctors, they will see I take my pills," Dr Cole said.
"The other is that there is something about being isolated and lonely that changes your body." His team set out to investigate the second theory.
Dr Cole with John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, who has been studying the health effects of loneliness for years, looked at 14 volunteers - six who scored in the top 15 per cent of an accepted scale of loneliness.
"These are people who said for four years straight 'there's really nobody that I feel that close to," Dr Cole said.
The other eight were the least lonely of the group.
Dr Cole's team took blood and studied the gene activity of their immune system cells - the white blood cells that protect from invaders such as viruses and bacteria.
Conspiracy of genes
All 22,000 human genes were studied and compared, and 209 stood out in the loneliest people.
"These 200 genes weren't sort of a random mishmash of genes. They were part of a highly suspicious conspiracy of genes. A big fraction of them seemed to be involved in the basic immune response to tissue damage," Dr Cole said.
Others were involved in the production of antibodies -- the tag the body uses to mark microbes or damaged cells for removal, Dr Cole said.
While it might be difficult to treat loneliness, the researchers say the next step is to see if its effects might be treated.
Earlier on Prof Cacioppo and a colleague Louise Hawkley looked at what loneliness does to the ageing. The exact answers Kenyans would be looking for when they uproot their ageing parents from a robust village life, to a impersonal castle in Lavington, or worse still, to the US or Britain.
The researchers suspected that while the toll of loneliness may be mild and unremarkable in early life, it accumulates with time.
To test this idea, the scientists studied a group of college-age individuals and continued an annual study of a group of people who joined when they were between 50 and 68 years old.
Their findings, reported in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, are revealing. Consider stress, for example.
The more years you live, the more stressful experiences you are going to have: new jobs, marriage and divorce, parenting, financial worries, illness. It's inevitable.
Helpless and threatened
However, when the psychologists looked at the lives of the middle-aged and old people, they found that although the lonely ones reported the same number of stressful life events, they identified more sources of chronic stress and recalled more childhood adversity.
Moreover, they differed in how they perceived their life experiences. Even when faced with similar challenges, the lonelier people appeared more helpless and threatened.
And, ironically, they were less apt to actively seek help when they are stressed out.
The two delved further to look for a biological and more sustaining evidence. They took urine samples from both the lonely and the more contented volunteers, and found that the lonely ones had more of the hormone epinephrine flowing in their bodies.
Epinephrine is one of the body's "fight or flight" chemicals, and high levels indicate that lonely people go through life in a heightened state of arousal.
As with blood pressure, this physiological toll likely becomes more apparent with aging.
Since the body's stress hormones are intricately involved in fighting inflammation and infection, it appears that loneliness contributes to the wear and tear of aging through this pathway as well.
There is more bad news. When we experience the depletion caused by stress, our bodies normally rely on restorative processes like sleep to shore us up.
But when the researchers monitored the younger volunteers' sleep, they found that the lonely nights were disturbed by many "micro awakenings." That is, they appeared to sleep as much as the normal volunteers, but their sleep was of poorer quality.
Not surprisingly, the lonelier people reported more daytime dysfunction. Since sleep tends to deteriorate with age anyway, the added hit from loneliness is probably compromising this natural restoration process even more.
Physically flawed men
These studies give credence to others which indicated that unmarried men tend to die younger than married ones.
It had been suspected that this statistic could be at least partly explained by the fact that physically flawed men - who are at higher risk of early death - are also less likely to find a partner.
However, research suggests these physical factors have less of a bearing than first thought.
Psychologists believe that a marital relationship may benefit men's long-term health by giving them emotional security.
Dr Janet Empson, principal lecturer in psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, said having a wife as a confidante might help to explain why married men are able to deal with stress better and are therefore less likely to suffer from heart attacks or strokes.
Additional reporting by Reuters