Loneliness May Lead to Chronic Conditions, Emotional Distress in Young Adult Childhood Cancer Survivors

As young adults, survivors of childhood cancers were more likely to report feeling lonely compared with their siblings, emphasizing the importance of screening.

Young adult childhood cancer survivors may have an increased risk for loneliness, which may be linked to new-onset chronic conditions and future emotional distress, according to recent study results.

In addition, findings from the study demonstrated that this increased risk for loneliness may also lead to risky health behaviors including alcohol consumption and smoking.

“Young adult survivors of childhood cancer are navigating a developmental period marked by increased social expectations, during which loneliness may have significant impact on physical and mental health,” the study authors wrote. “Our results highlight the importance of identifying and screening young adult survivors of childhood cancer for loneliness and the need for targeted interventions to reduce loneliness.”

Researchers analyzed data from 9,664 young adult childhood cancer survivors (median age at cancer diagnosis, 10.5 years) and 2,221 siblings. Both groups completed a survey to assess levels of loneliness at the start of the study and throughout a median of 6.6 years of follow-up. Responses to the survey question were used to determine the potential association between loneliness and health behaviors, emotional distress and chronic conditions.

“Loneliness, the subjective perception of social isolation, is increasingly recognized as an important contributor to poor health, with evidence demonstrating its unique impact on mortality as well as physical and psychological morbidity in the general population,” the study authors wrote in the findings published in the journal Cancer.

Compared with their siblings, childhood cancer survivors were more likely to report loneliness at the start of the study and/or during follow-up. Loneliness reported at the start of the study and during follow-up was linked with an increased risk for depression, anxiety and current smoking. Childhood cancer survivors who only reported loneliness during the study’s follow-up were more likely to heavily consume alcohol, have suicidal ideations and have new-onset moderate to life-threatening chronic conditions.

Although childhood cancer survivors reported feelings of loneliness, the study authors wrote that there are ways to potentially reduce the effects of it.

“There are several psychological interventions aimed at reducing loneliness that may confer benefit to survivors' mental and physical health, including mindfulness and internet-based cognitive‐behavioral programs. These interventions have been studied in noncancer populations and future studies should evaluate their feasibility and efficacy in survivors of childhood cancer.”

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