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How do you solve loneliness?

A 2018 survey by Cigna found loneliness to be an epidemic in the United States. Almost 40 percent of those surveyed reported feeling that their relationships did not feel meaningful, and as a result they felt isolated. With loneliness being so rampant, it begs the question: what happens to make us feel lonely, and how do we solve it? Perhaps one of the best ways to tackle this question is to begin by defining loneliness.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is often characterized as a state of distress resulting from constant and unrelenting feelings of being alone, separated or divided from others, and an inability to connect on a deeper level with others who care about us. In this way, loneliness can be viewed as a threat response that acts as a survival mechanism to ensure that we are drawn towards others who care enough about us to give us a better chance of withstanding potential dangers.

Feelings of loneliness are often triggered by a lack of impactful social interactions or the negative emotions that accompany the absence of meaningful relationships. Those who feel lonely often feel like there is no one around them that deeply cares about them, and that they in-turn care deeply about.

Studies such as the widely cited research by Baumeister titled The need to belong, have found that humans need and desire strong, stable interpersonal relationships. While the frequency can vary based upon an individual's personality traits, humans have been found to need continual, positive, social interactions and relational bonds.This feeds into a sense of belonging that can have a significant effect on emotional patterns and cognitive processes.

Regardless of whether the lack of meaningful social interactions or relationships are real or perceived, they have the power to introduce negative thoughts which, if they continue, can turn into depression and can impact many parts of a person’s life.

Is loneliness a problem?

Loneliness can act as a stressor which if left unchecked, can cause a cascade of other problems. A recent review of the effects of perceived social isolation across the life span found that loneliness can wreak havoc on an individual’s physical, mental and cognitive health. They found that feelings of loneliness, whether real or perceived, can lead to depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity. In fact, an expansive 2019 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that across all races and ethnicities, perceived social isolation greatly increased the risk of premature death.

In a study by Angelina Sutin, PhD, of Florida State University College of Medicine – which studied over 12,000 U.S. adults aged 50 and over, the research which would go on to be published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, online 2018; found that loneliness is associated with a 40 percent increase in a person’s risk of dementia. The study also found that the inability of some of those older adults to be active further accelerated their feelings of loneliness.

Is there a scientific explanation for what happens when we feel lonely?

Active physical activity can help grow the hippocampus which serves an important role along with the cerebral cortex in keeping negative emotions at bay. This means that once we are unable to run or walk at least 1-mile a day, or get plenty of exercise, we become more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness triggering a stress response.

A 2015 study led by Steven Cole, MD, and professor of medicine at UCLA reinforced others findings that loneliness impacted gene expressions in leukocytes, white blood cells that play an important role within the immune system. When combined with a plethora of other physician findings, a picture emerges that clearly draws a line between loneliness and our body producing long-term survivalistic fight-or-flight stress signaling.

Once stressed, the hypothalamus, adrenal gland, and pituitary gland join together to begin invoking a threat response which includes producing a chain of hormones (CRH and ACTH), which result in the release of cortisol. This combination activates and empowers the amygdala and the brainstem which, as part of the limbic system, is connected to strong emotions that are designed to help us survive (anger, sorrow, and fear as examples). Those hormones, especially CRH, and that increased activity within the limbic system, overpowers the Hippocampus and the overall cerebral cortex, which usually serve as guards against overwhelming negative emotions.

Over time, if these feelings of loneliness continue without any interruption or counter measures, it can overwhelm the cerebral cortex and cause the hippocampus to shrink, which can result in a person falling into a negative spiral that can cause decreased immune response, and increased likelihood of dementia and other health risks.

How do we solve this problem?

At MoodSpark, we are leveraging the power of artificial intelligence combined with a physical device that can be omnipresent with those most likely to suffer from loneliness. This allows us to identify patterns in a person’s behavior and interrupt their negative emotional moments with hippocampus-strengthening positive memories which interrupt the stress response and put them at ease. As an added benefit, each interruption decreases that person’s stress and increases the generation of new neurons, accomplished in a way that has a similar biological impact as antidepressants over time.

By using strong positive memories and social interactions to activate and grow the hippocampus and cerebral cortex, we at MoodSpark are able to be a part of providing increased mental and biological health to those who might otherwise experience significant deterioration due to the stress response that accompanies feelings of abandonment and loneliness. We at MoodSpark see this as a great step forward for AI impacting the lives of those most vulnerable around us.

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