Experts say a new pet or physical exercise can help battle loneliness before it hurts one's health permanently. Wikipedia

Feelings of loneliness not only weigh on the mind, but also can cause enough harm to the body to take years off someone’s life, according to new research presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in New Orleans Saturday.

Lonely people are more likely to have dormant viruses in their bodies reactivated than are those who are socially satisfied, Live Science reported in its account of the researchers' findings. They are also more likely to respond to stress in ways that will produce inflammatory compounds, a factor in heart disease, among other conditions.

Lisa Jaremka, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at the Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus, led a team of researchers who studied the association between social connectedness and overall well-being.

In their first study, the researchers analyzed the blood of breast-cancer survivors for antibodies against cytomegalovirus, a herpes virus, and they measured their degrees of social connectedness.

The research team found the lonelier the participant, the higher the level of cytomegalovirus antibodies in the blood, Live Science reported.

In their second study, the researchers analyzed inflammatory proteins called cytokines in breast-cancer survivors and in healthy albeit overweight middle-age adults. After the participants provided blood samples, they were subjected to a couple of socially stressful tests: One was to give an extemporaneous speech, and the other was to do mathematical calculations mentally in front of a panel of people in white lab coats.

This time, the research team found the lonelier the participant, the higher the level of cytokine interleukin-6 after the stressful speech, Live Science said.

It is hardly news that stress has an effect on an individual’s health, but researchers are now wondering whether loneliness in itself is its own source of chronic stress, according to Jaremka.

In any case, the researcher said the two studies indicate that people who feel close to their families and friends are likely getting boosts from those relationships.

“People who feel socially connected are experiencing positive outcomes,” Jaremka told Live Science.

Along a similar line of inquiry, the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly, or Amstel, found that participants who felt lonely were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia over three years as were participants who did not feel lonely. The results were published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry last month.

Researchers cited by the Independent noted that living alone doesn’t necessarily mean a person is likely to have health problems.

“Interestingly, the fact that 'feeling lonely' rather than 'being alone' was associated with dementia onset suggests that it is not the objective situation, but, rather, the perceived absence of social attachments that increases the risk of cognitive decline,” wrote the Amstel researchers led by Dr. Tjalling Jan Holwerda of the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam.

“We hypothesize that feelings of loneliness may be considered a manifestation of the deteriorating social skills that are seen as part of the personality change accompanying the process of dementia,” the Amstel researchers added.

There are a plethora of options for anyone looking to combat loneliness, chief among them remembering that the problem is a common one. And, either a new hobby or physical exercise can help in solving it.