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This Emotion Can Increase Your Cancer Risk, New Study Says

Lonely middle-aged men may be more susceptible to cancer and worse outcomes.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab

Loneliness in middle age may increase a man's risk of cancer, suggests a new study that followed a group of men for more than 20 years.

The Finnish study analyzed health data from more than 2,500 men aged 42 to 61, who were participating in a heart-health study that involved measuring feelings of loneliness on an 11-point scale. The researchers found that over two decades, men who reported feeling lonely were more likely to be diagnosed with cancer—and face a worse prognosis.

The findings, published this month in the journal Psychology Research, applied only to loneliness, not social isolation, the researchers said. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these 98 Symptoms To Watch For Even After Vaccination.

Social isolation and loneliness: What's the difference?

"Social isolation refers to the objective lack of social contacts with other people, whereas loneliness is the negative perception of social isolation, i.e. the subjective feeling of being lonely," the scientists wrote. 

"Loneliness and social isolation are claimed to affect physical health as strongly as some widely known health risks, such as smoking or obesity, and a link between loneliness and cancer mortality in the general population has recently been reported."

The difference in cancer risk between the two states? Experts aren't sure, but it may be related to feelings of satisfaction, said the study's lead author, Siiri-Liisi Kraav of the University of Eastern Finland. "For many people, their level of social contacts (social isolation) is satisfactory, and it does not necessarily cause suffering. Loneliness, however, by definition includes dissatisfaction with the situation," Kraav told Medscape Medical News.

Feelings of loneliness may induce a stress response, which causes inflammation in the body. Experts believe inflammation can negatively impact the heart, immune system and brain. "It has been proposed that loneliness might disturb hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA axis) functions and increase low-grade inflammation either directly, via unhealthy lifestyle or depression," said Kraav. 

RELATED: 5 Ways to Prevent Dementia, Says Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Other studies detail risks of loneliness

The study is the latest to indicate that loneliness in middle age and beyond may be a serious health risk. Other research has found that loneliness can have health effects similar to obesity, physical inactivity and smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and has been associated with a 50% increase in the risk of dementia, says Scott Kaiser, MD, a board-certified geriatrician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

The Finnish scientists said more needs to be done to track and treat loneliness as a health condition. "Loneliness has a lot of adverse health effects; increased cancer incidence is only one of them," said Kraav. "It would be important to prevent these negative effects by developing effective interventions for loneliness and to routinely screen for loneliness." And to protect your health, don't miss these Signs You're Getting One of the "Most Deadly" Cancers.