Does loneliness cause cancer?

three-people-webYes, if you are a genetically in bred rat. If you are not? Well the jury is still out.  This story was widely reported in the Times, The Daily Mail and the BBC News website (among others).  As usual, the best place to find out more is the NHS Choices website “Can loneliness cause cancer?”, you will also find links to the press coverage there.

What do I think of the study? It is a good piece of research, published in a high quality journal (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS).  I’m not convinced that it is directly relevant to humans. Cancer Research UK  are quick to point out that overall the evidence suggests stress in humans is NOT related to breast cancer (click here to read their response). They argue that people under stress are more likely to take up unhealthy habits, for example, over eating or smoking and that this could increase your cancer risk (rather than the loneliness itself).

The rats used in the study were genetically in bred to develop tumours (unlike humans) and what counts as social and stressful for a rat is obviously quite different to stress in a human.  The research found that corticosterone levels were high in the isolated rats but as NHS Choices points out, we don’t know what (if any) link corticosterone has to cancer in humans. You can also read more about the study at Science News Daily, where they argue the contrary, that rats ARE a good system for studying cancer in humans.

The bottom line? No one wants to be stressed or lonely and there are a whole host of moral and compassionate reasons for wanting to help people who are struggling. If you are stressed and lonely worrying that this is going to increase your risk of getting cancer certainly isn’t going to help your situation.  Likewise, if you have just been diagnosed with cancer, stories like this make you think that you “caused” your cancer by being stressed.

There are many causes of cancer, some like smoking, we can control others like ageing happen to all of us whether we like it or not.  So, while I think that reducing stress is a good thing, there are lots of other more helpful ways of reducing your risk of cancer or having it detected early.  They aren’t “trendy” but not smoking, keeping a healthy weight, exercising and going for any screening tests you are entitled to all have a lot more evidence to suggest you will be better off than if you try to prevent cancer solely by reducing your stress levels alone.

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