Lonely students show weaker immunity: study

NEW YORK (Reuters) - First-year college students who consider themselves to be very lonely on campus and cut off from their friends and family back home may receive less benefit from flu vaccinations than their peers, new study findings suggest.

"The loneliness and social isolation that university freshman experience in their first semester is powerful enough to have a very real impact on immune function, with potentially health relevant implications," study author Sarah D. Pressman, a doctoral candidate at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Melon University, told Reuters Health.

In light of this, it is important for students to "form social connections to protect themselves against illness, (and against) poorer immune response to vaccination," she said

Pressman and her team looked at the influence of loneliness and social isolation on the immune response of 83 healthy men and women in their first semester of college.

At the start of the study, the college freshmen completed questionnaires about their psychological status, including their degree of loneliness. Then they began recording information about loneliness, stress and mood in their palm computer. Two days after the students began this online diary, they were vaccinated against influenza.

Chronically lonely students mounted a weaker immune response -- as measured by their production of antibodies to the influenza virus -- at both one and four months after vaccination than did those who reported less loneliness, the researchers report.

The association was true for students who consistently reported loneliness throughout the four-month study period, but not for those who only reported a high degree of loneliness at the start of the semester, Pressman noted.

A poorer immune response was also seen in those who reported having a small social network -- that is few friends or family members with whom they were in regular contact -- at the start of the study as well as for those who remained socially isolated throughout the study period, the researcher report in Health Psychology, a journal published by the American Psychological Association.

Students who consistently experienced a high degree of loneliness also reported more psychological stress. Stress is known to be bad for a person's health so it may be a "good pathway," by which the immune system is affected, according to Pressman. "Loneliness and stress are obviously closely intertwined," she said.

In light of the findings, "parents shouldn't worry about the transient loneliness that their children may experience upon their transition to a new school and a new city," according to Pressman. "But if their children seem to be experiencing social isolation many months into their new program, it might be best to advise them to try to get out there and meet people," she suggested.

"Even participating in a club or society might be beneficial because of the social contact that it offers."

Pressman also stressed that while the lonely, socially isolated students did not have the strongest immune response, that doesn't mean they received no benefit from their vaccination.

"It was not the case that these students were not protected by the flu vaccination, only that there immune response was less robust than their non-lonely and less isolated counterparts," she noted. "It is still very important that university students get vaccinated against the flu."

SOURCE: Health Psychology, May 2005.