On November 7, 2018, the Humana Foundation’s Thought Leadership series, designed to spark innovative and collaborative thinking, brought Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience to Louisville to discuss over 20 years of work and research done by she and her late husband Dr. John Cacioppo around social connection and loneliness. “Social isolation is a discrepancy between our current and expected relationships,” she said.

Research has shown that loneliness and social isolation are correlated with poor health and more unhealthy days. Whether it’s making new friends, finding a new place to live, getting around, or managing stress, staying meaningfully engaged and keeping strong connections may be crucial to your emotional and physical well-being.

“Loneliness is contagious, heritable, affects one in four people – and increases the chances of early death by 20%,” said social neuroscientist Dr. John Cacioppo in an interview with The Guardian.

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“Your brain is your main social organ,” shared Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, “It makes you feel connected or disconnected to others. And, social media can either increase loneliness or be used as an avenue to generate in person gatherings, rather than just observing others social posts and feeling more lonely.” 

Dr. Cacioppo went on to describe that our mind, and the way we view a relationship, moves on a continuum between negative and positive. She talked about “loneliness as perceived social isolation,” saying that it is a “biological signal that we need to connect with others, to take care of our social body.” This signal triggers an approach/avoidance disparity - approach for social interactions, don’t approach - they could harm you.

So what do we do about it? Dr. Cacioppo described 8 areas that loneliness impacts, delving into how social connection during hospitalization can be important to prevent additional strokes and poor health, and that loneliness can predict depression, showing up 2-3 weeks before depression hits. “We’ve developed exercises for moving people from me to we through cognitive behavioral therapy,” she said, “And validated them with the army.”


  1. Decreases sleep salubrity (you’re “fire alarm is always on”)

  2. Increases HPA activation (stress response)

  3. Increases vascular resistance and blood pressure

  4. Increases inflammatory substrate

  5. Decreases viral immunity (you can catch the flew more often, and the flu shot can be less effective)

  6. Increases depressive symptomatology

  7. Increases suicide rates

  8. Increases self-centeredness  

Dr. Cacioppo went on to describe how critical our notion of self is, highlighting three areas:

  • Intimate self (self you have with your partner, best friend),

  • Relational self (who are you at work or perceived by others in social settings),

  • Collective self/identity (culture in country, neighborhood, workplace, etc).

You read more about the three areas breakdown here.

“Collective identity tends to be protective of intimate loneliness”, she went on to explain. “If you have something bigger than yourself you can relate to, it helps to prevent loneliness at the individual level.”

After her presentation, Dr. Cacioppo engaged the audience in a conversation, talking about the impact of culture on loneliness. “Collective cultures tend to be more lonely, because of all the social pressure they put on individuals,” she said. An introvert may only need one good friend/partner to feel fulfilled, while extroverts may have multiple people to engage with for different activities.

You have to ask, “Is what you have what you want?” And if the answer is no, consider what needs to change in your expectations or how you are organizing your life, and who you are surrounding yourself with.

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Walter Woods, CEO of the Humana Foundation said, “We’ve been evolving the Humana Foundation's strategy – to find new ways to make a more sustainable impact in Louisville and the other seven communities we serve, because we know that for far too many people in our community, achieving their best health is not easy.  One area of focus for the Humana Foundation is social connection, as loneliness and social isolation are correlated with poor health and more unhealthy days. Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo and her husband, the late Dr. John Cacioppo, are experts in this field. Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo’s research shows that human meaningful connectedness has a function — not only to bond with people emotionally but also to improve our cognition and behavior, and indirectly our mental, physical and brain health. We invited Dr. Cacioppo to speak at our Thought Leadership series to bring more awareness to this important issue that’s impacting all of our communities, and to spark innovative and collaborative thinking to help address it.”

 — photos and story by Josh Miller