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When Elvis crooned, “Are you lonesome tonight?,” he probably wasn’t thinking about sleep.
But a study out Tuesday suggests that people who feel lonely don’t sleep as soundly as other people, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference whether they’re sharing their bed with someone or not.
Previous research has found that lonely people are more likely to suffer health problems, such as heart disease and dementia, and the authors of the new study wondered if that might be due to its effect on sleep.
From an evolutionary perspective, the connection between loneliness and a poor night’s sleep makes sense, the authors write in the journal Sleep. “Humans must have relied on a safe social surround to survive and thrive,” the researchers say.
The University of Chicago scientists studied 95 adults between the ages of 19 and 84 who live in a farming town in South Dakota. Three out of four were married.
In interviews, they asked their subjects about loneliness, depression, anxiety and stress. Three questions focused on loneliness: How often did they feel they lacked companionship, felt left out and felt isolated from others? The researchers also asked the participants how well they slept and whether they felt sleepy during the day.
People tend to be pretty off-base when they recall how they slept. To get more accurate information, the researchers asked their subjects to strap on a wristwatch-like device called an actigraph, which records movements, for a week. When wearers are still, scientists can be pretty sure they’re sound asleep.
In both the married and unmarried participants, researchers found a link between loneliness and tossing and turning.
The South Dakota folks weren’t nearly as lonely as other groups that have been studied, so the scientists think the link between loneliness and poor sleep quality probably applies to a wide range of people, explained lead author Lianne Kurina, an assistant professor of epidemiology.
Surprisingly, “negative affect,” a combination of symptoms of depression and anxiety and feelings of stress, didn’t seem to play a role in how well or how long people slept. However, unlike the lonely people, the depressed, anxious or stressed-out participants were more likely to think they didn’t sleep well.
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