In bad news for folks who already feel that everyone’s having more fun than they are, an intriguing new study out of the University of Chicago suggests that people who feel lonelier are more likely to have restless sleep.
It’s not because they’re depressed, anxious or stressed out either. Nighttime awakenings and interruptions were linked with loneliness regardless of mood. Nor do lonely, fitful sleepers report having worse sleep than other people. Overall, they get about the same amount of sleep and they don’t feel more tired the next day. Nevertheless, sensors strapped to their wrists record that they toss and turn and wake up more often during the night.
The findings could help explain why lonely people tend to have more health problems on the whole, including depression, high blood pressure and higher risk of heart disease in women. Previous research suggests that sleep disruptions may lead to biological changes that could worsen health.
And loneliness, mind you, results from feelings of social isolation, not actual isolation. Some people live in a vibrantly social community, have a large a family and boatloads of “likes” on Facebook and still feel socially isolated. Other people may live in a lighthouse in Lapland and not experience a moment of loneliness. As the study clinically yet poignantly defines it, loneliness is “the painful experience that accompanies a discrepancy between a person’s desired and actual social relationships.”
In a previous study in 2002, the authors reached a similar conclusion about loneliness and problem sleep among students. But while students tend to be willing and readily available guinea pigs, as a group they present certain drawbacks in regard to generalizability. For one thing, they’re often very similar in age, which can lead to difficulties in extrapolating findings to the rest of the population. And although they may be ethnically diverse and socially dynamic, their differences in background can make it difficult to rule out other variables that may be at play.
For the new study, which is published in the November issue of the journal Sleep, the researchers found a group that is almost as different from college students as is possible to imagine: a community of rural families living in the Dakotas known as Hutterites. The Hutterites, who like the Amish and the Mennonites, practice a form of Christianity known as Anabaptism, do everything communally in large, extended family groups. They eat together, work together (mostly on farms) and share all their goods and capital. This is a very tight-knit bunch. (They also shun publicity, so getting nearly 100 of them to participate in a study required years of prep work.)
Because of their culture, the differences between Hutterite families are very small and thus, in research, some variables can be ruled out. All participants, aged 19 to 84, came from the same socioeconomic stratum, for example, and they had overwhelming similarities in diet and family background. The community does not allow smoking. About 90% of them went to bed between 9:30 and 11:30 p.m. and woke up between 5 and 7 a.m. And perhaps because they engage in the polar opposite of the rat race, all had pretty low levels of stress.
Overall, they also had low levels of loneliness. But, even still, small differences in reported feelings of loneliness were associated with restless sleep. Researchers asked the participants how often they felt left out or isolated, then rated them on a standard scale of loneliness. Every one-unit increase on the loneliness scale was associated with an 8% increase in sleep fragmentation.
The findings among this homogeneous group were remarkably consistent with those in the students. In both groups, those who said they felt more alone had more interrupted sleep, not according to self-reports, but according to the wrist actigraphs (a device developed in the 1990s that measures movement during sleep) they wore to bed.
“Lonely individuals experienced significantly more sleep fragmentation than did those who reported more connection to others,” says the study, suggesting that “perceptions of a secure social surround may promote a better, more restful night’s sleep.” From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense, since humans likely relied on a safe social environment in order to survive. The study’s authors reason that if the findings hold true for both students and Hutterites, they may well be pretty universal.
“The [Dakotan] group was not very lonely as a whole,” says the paper’s chief author Lianne Kurina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Chicago. “But what I found most surprising was that even subtle differences in the feelings of loneliness showed up in the sleep.” The other critical discovery was that the findings held even after adjusting for the major sleep bugaboos, anxiety, stress and depression. “Negative affect was actually not associated with sleep fragmentation,” says Kurina.
The next step is to figure out whether interrupted sleep — even unnoticeable nighttime disruptions — may contribute to the health problems associated with loneliness, and what the overall effects of interrupted sleep might be. These studies are underway, with the help of longitudinal data collected from handy-dandy actigraphs. Kurina and her colleagues are now looking at sleep patterns among people as they age, and how marriage or bed partners affect sleep patterns. Until this research is complete, fitful sleepers can take comfort in the fact that they are not alone.