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Nov 25, 2015 10:19 AM EST

Loneliness may make you sick, study suggests

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A new study that links loneliness with premature death suggests that loneliness may initiate cellular changes that might decrease a person's ability to fight viral infections, Fox News reports.

The study was conducted on 141 older adults, out of which 36 were classified as chronically lonely.

The new study was published Monday in the journal PNAS.

The researchers studied the relationship between loneliness and gene expression in white blood cells.

The study found that, in the chronically lonely people, the cells displayed increased expression of the genes involved in inflammation and fighting bacterial infections, compared with the cells of people who were not chronically lonely.

However, the cells also had a lower level of expression of the genes involved in fighting viral infections.

The researchers suggest that these changes result from the effect of loneliness on the activity of certain genes , a phenomenon called "conserved transcriptional response to adversity," or CTRA, according to Healthline.

Study author John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, said that this gene expression "is changing the body to be more likely to show an inflammatory response". 

Although this response "puts the organism in a state of preparation for bacterial infection," he said. This, however, compromises the body's ability to fight potential viral infections.

The study also suggested that loneliness and the pro-inflammatory pattern of gene expression could propagate each other over time.

In another experiment that was part of the same study, the researchers found the same pro-inflammation of genetic expression among lonely macaque monkeys, related to the increase of immature cells called monocytes.

The researchers said they are planning to continue studying how loneliness may lead to poor health and how it could be prevented in older people.

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