People who feel lonely have a greater likelihood of suffering from restless, disruptive sleep, according to findings of a new study from the University of Chicago that were recently published in the journal Sleep.
Feelings of loneliness do not necessarily stem from being physically isolated, but often arise from social isolation. The study authors define loneliness as being “the painful experience that accompanies a discrepancy between a person’s desired and actual social relationships.”
The results of the study suggest that while lonely sleepers get about the same amount of sleep as other people and don’t feel tired the next day, they toss and turn, and wake more frequently. However, the study found nothing to suggest that fitful sleep was due to stress, anxiety, or depression. In fact, among those who felt lonely, sleep disruptions were experienced regardless of their mood.
Lead study author Lianne Kurina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Chicago stated, “Negative affect was actually not associated with sleep fragmentation….What I found most surprising was that even subtle differences in the feelings of loneliness showed up in the sleep.”
Previous research has indicated that experiencing frequent sleep disruptions can promote biological changes that can have ill effects on overall health. The latest study only adds to this evidence, and the results may help to explain why people who suffer from feelings of loneliness have a greater tendency to suffer from more health issues.
For their analysis, the researchers turned to a community of Hutterites. This is a group of rural families living in the Dakotas who practice Anabaptism, a form of christianity similar to that of the Amish and the Mennonites. The Hutterites live a communal existence in which they eat and work in large family groups, as well as share all goods and capital.
The study participants ranged in age from 19 to 84, with all obviously coming from the same socioeconomic background, as well as having similar diets and family backgrounds, where smoking is not allowed. These variables were easily ruled out for purposes of the study.
Stress levels were low among the nearly 100 study subjects, due to their simplistic and rural way of life. Around 90 percent of participants retired to bed between the hours of 9:30 and 11:30 p.m., and rose in the morning between 5 and 7 a.m.
While the group experienced low levels of loneliness overall, differences in feelings of loneliness were found to be linked to restless sleep. Participants were queried regarding the frequency of feeling isolated and each was rated on a standard scale of loneliness.
The results indicated that each one-unit increase on the loneliness scale was linked to an 8 percent increase in sleep disruption. Sleep disturances were monitored by devices known as wrist actigraphs that measure movement during sleep.
Regarding their findings, the study authors wrote, “Lonely individuals experienced significantly more sleep fragmentation than did those who reported more connection to others.” They noted that this suggests that “perceptions of a secure social surround may promote a better, more restful night’s sleep.”
The study results are similar to those of a previous study comprised of college students conducted in 2002. This led the authors to speculate that because both studies yielded similar findings, the results likely hold true for everyone.
In conclusion, the authors wrote, “Our study provides evidence that those individuals who perceive themselves as less connected to others have more fragmented sleep. Sleep could be a pathway through which perceived social isolation influences health.”
Studies are now underway to determine if sleep interruptions play a role in health problems associated with loneliness.