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An elderly woman with a cane walking on a deserted sidewalk.

A lonely life can have consequences for your health, says James J. Lynch. He will speak on the topic at the University Monday, May 7.

So lonely they could die

A lecturer explains how a metaphorical broken heart can lead to the real thing

By Kristin Pederson

April 27, 2007

In his 1956 hit "Heartbreak Hotel," Elvis Presley laments, "I get so lonely, I could die." That may seem like just a metaphor, but the King may have been on to something. Researcher James J. Lynch, whose research indicates that loneliness indeed can contribute to an increased risk of disease and premature death, will speak at 3 p.m. Monday, May 7 in Mayo Auditorium, 420 Delaware St. S.E., Minneapolis. He is the guest of the University's Center for Spirituality and Healing. Lynch is the author of three books: "The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness" (1976), "The Language of the Heart: The Human Body in Dialogue" (1985), and "A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness" (2000). In these books, as well as in 15 chapters in medical textbooks, more than 100 articles in peer-reviewed medical journals, and numerous television and radio appearances, Lynch has shown that human loneliness is a major contributor to increased risk of disease and premature death. Lynch was a graduate and postdoctoral student under W. Horsley Gantt, M.D., the last American student of Ivan Pavlov, during the era in which Dr. Christiaan Barnard's celebrated heart transplant made headlines. The American health care system operated then almost entirely within a mechanistic framework, viewing the body as a sum of its parts and processes.

Lynch's talk, "New Insights Into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness," is the annual Ruth Stricker Mind-Body Lecture of the University's Center for Spirituality and Healing. It is free and open to the public. Registration is required. Call (612) 624-9459 or click the link above for more information. A reception and book signing will follow. The Center for Spirituality and Healing is a national leader in education, outreach and research in complementary, alternative and culturally based healing practices. It aims to enhance health and well-being through integrating the best of complementary and conventional care.

"And I was a major mechanist," says Lynch. "I was dragged kicking and screaming" into the emerging focus on mind/body medicine. The results of his own research soon became too powerful to ignore. As a psychiatry instructor at The Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1965, he worked on a hypertension study involving dogs as subjects. "We noticed that the dogs' blood pressure dropped dramatically when petted or touched," says Lynch, "so we wondered, if the human touch can affect the hearts of animals, what effect does this kind of interaction have on other human beings?" Lynch went on to serve on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and in 1976 was appointed full professor in the psychiatry department of the University of Maryland Medical School. He continued studying the effect of human interaction, discovering that even patients in a coma experienced an immediate heart rate reaction when their hands were held by another person. "So if even this very transient touch affects the heart of an otherwise nonresponsive person, what effect does long-term lack of contact do to our cardiovascular health?" asks Lynch. From 1976 through 1989 Lynch directed the Center for the Study of Human Psychophysiology at that medical school. He continued research on the health consequences of human loneliness and the therapeutic health benefits of human companionship. His theory that social isolation (and, conversely, social connection) hugely affects human well-being is seen across settings and in multiple populations. Among his findings: