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Social Isolation Strongly Predicts Chronic Inflammation, Finds New Study

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New research highlights the profound impact of social isolation on systemic chronic inflammation, providing crucial insights into public health concerns. A multi-cohort study conducted by an international team of researchers, including experts from the University of Greenwich, Duke University, and Copenhagen University Hospital, has demonstrated that social isolation is consistently linked to increased inflammation markers in adults. The findings were published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

The research utilised data from three distinct cohorts: the Danish TRIAGE Study of acutely admitted medical patients, the New Zealand Dunedin Longitudinal Study, and the UK Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study. The study aimed to investigate the associations between social isolation, loneliness, and systemic inflammation using various biomarkers.

In the Danish TRIAGE Study, socially isolated patients exhibited significantly higher levels of soluble urokinase plasminogen activator receptor (suPAR), a marker indicative of systemic chronic inflammation. These patients also showed elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6), but suPAR remained the most consistent marker after adjusting for covariates such as body mass index (BMI) and smoking.

The Dunedin Longitudinal Study revealed that participants who reported loneliness at ages 38 and 45 had higher suPAR levels at age 45. However, no significant association was found between loneliness and CRP or IL-6 when lifestyle factors were controlled for.

Childhood social isolation was found to be a predictor of higher inflammation in adulthood. Participants from the Dunedin and E-Risk Studies who experienced social isolation during childhood had higher levels of CRP, IL-6, and suPAR in adulthood, with suPAR being the most robust indicator even after adjusting for multiple confounders.

These findings underscore the critical role of social relationships in long-term health outcomes. Systemic chronic inflammation is a major contributor to various diseases, including cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders. The study’s results suggest that social isolation, particularly when experienced in childhood, can lead to long-term biological embedding of stress responses, manifesting as chronic inflammation later in life.

The distinction between social isolation and loneliness is also highlighted. While both are detrimental to health, social isolation emerged as a stronger predictor of inflammation. This suggests that interventions aimed at reducing social isolation could be more effective in mitigating inflammation-related health risks.

Given the robustness of suPAR as a marker for chronic inflammation, future research and clinical interventions might benefit from focusing on this biomarker. The study suggests that suPAR can serve as a quantifiable intermediate outcome in interventions aimed at reducing social isolation, potentially providing a quicker measure of intervention efficacy before the development of chronic disease.

Further research is needed to explore the mechanisms linking social isolation and chronic inflammation. Understanding whether interventions can reverse the biological impacts of early social isolation and mitigate the associated health risks remains a critical area of investigation. Longitudinal studies with longer follow-up periods will be essential to unravel these complex relationships and inform public health strategies.

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