Humans are social creatures by nature. We’ve evolved this way out of necessity as being alone in centuries past would challenge one’s ability to survive. We needed each other for protection and acquiring food. Nowadays the threats from isolation are not as apparent, but social isolation and loneliness are still detrimental to your health.
Despite all the social networks and most people living in cities nearly half of adults feel lonely or left out and about a quarter are socially isolated. However, with the current pandemic and restrictive lockdown measures, these numbers are likely to be much higher.
The Meaning of Social Isolation and Loneliness
While people may refer to loneliness and social isolation interchangeably, they are noticeably different. Social isolation refers to the physical separation of a person from others, while loneliness is more of the perception of being alone. One can still be lonely while being around a lot of people. Similarly, you can be living alone but not feel socially isolated as long as you have a strong social network.
Social isolation and loneliness tend to be higher in older adults, which is understandable. As we get into our later years, friends and family members may have passed away, and our mobility may be limited which can affect the ability to interact with others. In addition, less education, low income and not being married all increase the chances of being isolated or feeling lonely. However, young adults may also experience loneliness and to a greater extent than middle-aged adults.
What it Means to Your Health
There’s a strong connection between being socially isolated and feeling lonely with your mental wellbeing. Both conditions are associated with increased anxiety and depression. In mice, four weeks of isolation resulted in long lasting challenges to memory and mental function. And people who felt lonely, their chances for getting dementia and Alzheimer’s disease increased. Loneliness may also be more of a concern when it comes to dementia than actual isolation.
But it’s not just mental wellbeing that’s a concern. Social isolation and loneliness can increase your chances for heart disease, stroke and early death. One study reported that being socially isolated was associated with a 60% to 70% greater chance of death over seven years. Some researchers have even suggested being isolated or lonely is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Much of negative health effects of isolation and loneliness may due to increased risk factors. Indeed, people who are lonely have increased blood pressure. Animal studies have shown that being isolated can lead to stiffer blood vessels. In addition, ongoing isolation and loneliness can change your immune system and result in inflammation making you more susceptible to disease and infection.
Isolation and loneliness can also impact medical treatment. Lonely people are less likely to undergo beneficial cancer therapies and have poor survival. And people with heart failure who were lonely had more hospitalizations and died earlier than those with heart failure who weren’t. But having a chronic condition may also lead to social isolation and loneliness. This can be the result of a lack of energy or physical limitations leading to less ability/opportunity to engage with others.
Managing Isolation and Loneliness
With isolation and loneliness being so common, and with it likely to be more prevalent now with the pandemic, chances are, either you, or someone close to you is experiencing it. While imposed lockdowns have taken away many opportunities for social engagement there are other ways to address social isolation and loneliness.
The most obvious one is to encourage greater social contact with others. And with technology, this is even easier than ever. Keep in mind, however, it’s not the number of connections that matter, but rather the quality of those connections.
Volunteering is another avenue, which improves overall health and wellbeing. People who volunteer may have a lower risk for hypertension and also report better health. Indeed, a review of 40 studies found people who volunteered had a lower risk for early death.
Other things such as having a pet can reduce social isolation. And singing music, whether you’re in a group or by yourself can help reduce loneliness. Even listening to music can result in a release of oxytocin, the love hormone, and make you feel connected.
We’ve survived over thousands of years by being connected with others and the need to do so is just as important now as it was then. Just like nutritious eating and regular activity, social connections are important for you to live a healthy and long-lasting life.
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