Can Social Isolation Really Cause Cancer?

social isolation
A surprising side effect of being lonely.

Most of the time when we think of cancer we think of our physical health: our genetic make-up, what we eat, our lifestyle, etc. But there may be another important variable; our social health. What’s more, our social health during our youth may be to blame.

Research from the University of Chicago shows that social isolation in young girls can actually lead to a change in some of the genes in fat cells in breast tissue, which could potentially lead to breast cancer.

“These fat cells then secrete substances that cause nearby pre-cancerous epithelial cells to proliferate more rapidly, accelerating the development of breast cancer. This local effect of fat cells in the breast was completely unanticipated,” states study author Suzanne Conzen to UChicagoNews.

In response to lab-recreated social stress, fat cells in mammary glands of mice began excreting three times the amount of leptin and other substances than normal fat cells. Leptin is a chemical that can increase the replication of epithelial cells. The increase in leptin secretion (along with other fat substances) may come from an alteration of three specific genes which cause cells to take up twice as much glucose as normal cells, causing increased metabolic activity. When these substances reached precancerous cells in the mice, they grew more rapidly than the normal cells.

What does this mouthful of science jargon mean to us? It means there’s one more potential angle to attack breast cancer before it’s too late. This information could be used in the development of medications or other treatments that target these altered fat cells. It also means that we need to pay attention to our young kids’ social lives. As if we don’t have enough to worry about when it comes to young girls playing with friends – it comes down to a balance between not pushing your kid too hard to make friends, but not ignoring the situation if they are socially isolated from their peers.

While this research was particularly focused on mammary glands, the study author points out that this type of behavior is known to happen in fat cells. The interesting part is that where the fat is located in the body matters, as the substances secreted by fat cells affect neighboring cells. What’s more, different fat-containing tissues react differently to stress, as well as diet and exercise.