Is Loneliness Encoded in Your DNA?

The Loneliness Epidemic

Humans are social creatures. Whether from missing out on that concert it seems like everyone is posting pictures of, moving to a new job in a new city, or following the death of a loved one, we’ve all experienced loneliness at some point. In fact, some say loneliness is on the rise and may soon reach “global epidemic” status, ironically fueled by our increased use of social media and smartphones. These feelings, which occur when there is a difference between our desired and actual levels of social interaction, can lead to increased stress and depression. 

In addition to affecting mental health, though, loneliness is known to cause a range of damaging effects to our physical health. Chronic loneliness has been linked to elevated blood pressure, increased risks of cardiovascular disease and cancer, and a decreased ability to fight off infections. The harmful effects of chronic loneliness have even been shown to shorten a person’s lifespan by up to 15 years. In comparison, this is the same decrease expected from smoking 15 cigarettes a day!

Your Genes May be Making You Lonely

While many factors determining whether someone feels lonely are environmental and generally relate to particular situations, our genes help determine how likely we are to feel lonely. Studies examining twins and their feelings of loneliness suggest that heritability explains over a third of the variance among whether a person will experience loneliness. 

To identify the genetic variants that may be connected to this heritability, previous studies have examined participant’s genomes. They found 15 variants that correlate with a person’s likelihood of feeling lonely, but these only explain a small portion of the genetic component of loneliness.

New Genetic Connections to Loneliness

A new study published in Human Molecular Genetics aimed to discover the remaining genetic factors that lead to a person’s predisposition to feeling lonely. To accomplish this, researchers performed a genome-wide association study of over 500,000 participants of European ancestry. By comparing their genomic data to reported loneliness, the study identified 19 genetic variants, including 4 novel variants, that correlate with a person’s odds of feeling lonely. 

Researchers found many of these variants in genes related to the brain- particularly areas that influence social perception and cognition. For example, the most significant variant found in this study is located in the TCF4 gene, which is known to be crucial for the development of the nervous system. Additionally, TCF4 has previously been linked to clinical depression.

This new study also examined the genetic connections between loneliness and a multitude of traits and diseases. It found that 39 of the characteristics they examined appeared correlated with a person’s loneliness. Among these, researchers found that loneliness may be associated with depression, neuroticism, tiredness, alcohol dependence, and body fat. This finding underscores that loneliness can lead to a staggering range of mental and physical health effects.

Another Week, Another Nebula Research Library Update!

This study on the genetics of loneliness is just one example from the latest update to the Nebula Research Library. Each week, we aim to present you with the latest, hot-off-the-press discoveries about your genome to help you unlock the information hiding in your genes. We comb through the latest literature to find studies that give our customers more clues into the traits that make them unique. Aside from loneliness, this week’s updates to the library include studies ranging from BMI to body fat to kidney disease.

We work diligently to scour the latest scientific publications to give you insights into your genome, as well as digestible information on what those insights may mean for you. Nebula believes that a customer’s experience should not simply end when they get back their sequencing results. Science is ever-evolving, and so is our knowledge of the genome and the importance it plays across nearly everything about us. From loneliness to longevity, our genes help to determine so much of what makes us, us. As such, we believe we have a duty to continue evolving as well, helping us all to make sense of the genetic code contained in each of us.

To begin your journey of understanding your genes and the information they contain, order a whole-genome sequencing kit today!

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