Gerontologists advise their older patients to stay connected to the local community. “Social isolation is a silent killer,” according to the Gerontological Society of America. Indeed — research links social isolation with an increased risk for a wide range of medical conditions and a shorter lifespan, in both experimental lab models and human observational studies.
And now we know why…
Researchers at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, recently studied the effects of social isolation in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster).
I know what you’re thinking…
But fruit flies have been used for over a century to study lifetime and multi-generational effects. During my summer high school biology course, I took my fruit fly colonies home and kept them in the closet so I could continue to study them after the course ended (until my mother caught wind of it).
The U Penn researchers found that in fruit flies, social isolation leads to cellular stress. In fact, it activated a cellular defense mechanism technically called the “unfolded protein response (UPR)”.
And that’s not good…
All proteins are made of chains of amino acids (nitrogen-containing biochemicals). The single chains of amino acids normally fold into complex shapes based upon the molecular charges, energetic attractions, and placements of individual amino acids in the chain. Experts think these folded shapes play a functional role in metabolic processes. And UPR is supposed to protect against improper folding.
UPR failure also suppresses normal, healthy cellular activity, triggers harmful inflammation, and can ultimately force death of the cell. Incorrect UPR response is also more common with aging.
The UPR response is found in virtually all animal species. It helps the body deal with stress. But when it constantly stays activated, UPR can lead to harmful clumping of improperly folded proteins.
Like many responses to chronic stress, UPR is a short-term defense mechanism. But when it is continually activated, it harms cells. In fact, experts suspect long-term UPR activation contributes to age-related diseases such as dementia and diabetes as well as the aging process itself.
Growing problem of social isolation
Without a doubt, social isolation is a growing problem in the U.S. In fact, about half of people older than 85 live alone. And many don’t drive or get out much. This decreased mobility limits opportunities for socializing outside the home. And now we know that social isolation even affects the body at the molecular level, as the researchers observed in fruit flies.
But the U Penn scientists wanted to take their findings a step further. They wanted to know why social isolation triggers this UPR response.
Prior studies in multiple experimental models found that sleep loss induces the UPR response. And other studies have shown that social isolation induces sleep loss in multiple species, including humans.
In the fruit fly model at Penn, researchers forced isolated flies to get more sleep by giving them Ambien (zolpidem). (No information was provided as to whether the Ambien induced sleep-walking or sleep-flying in the flies.)
Then, they measured UPR response in the isolated flies.
Interestingly, with more sleep, the flies’ UPR response dropped to the level seen in flies living in groups. Similarly, when flies living in groups experienced sleep loss, their UPR response levels rose to those seen among isolated flies.
Understanding the connections
It seems medical scientists may be gaining the upper hand with UPR, since they now know what causes it…stress, social isolation, and sleep deprivation.
Of course, researchers have known about the harmful effects of chronic stress and lack of social support in humans for decades, as I have reported. On the other hand, we know that low stress and lots of social support reduce disease risk. They also help you recover from and even reverse the progress of several chronic diseases.
Scientists are also studying the connections among UPR, sleep loss, aging, and age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s dementia. And they conclude, as always, that “more research is needed.” But many of us don’t have time to wait around for more research. We are all getting older.
Fortunately, you don’t have to wait. Today, you can start using many approaches outlined in my Complete Alzheimer’s Cure online learning protocol. This first-of-its-kind course includes natural medicine’s most cutting-edge treatments for Alzheimer’s and complete brain recovery. You can learn more about it or enroll today by clicking here.