The Science of Love: See How Social Isolation and Feeling Lonely Can Impact Our Health
In the last post, we explored the benefits of satisfactory social relationships. We saw that people who engage in fulfilling relationships have better physical, mental and social health. Socially adept individuals boast improved cardiovascular health, higher immunity, better weight management and sleep patterns. They are also less likely to experience depression, anxiety and a hoard of mental ailments. Patients who develop a bond with the caregiver normally recover better. Health experts have listed social isolation one of the greatest dangers to our health in the modern age. Social isolation has such a profound impact on our health, that a 2015 study by Holt-Lunstad & Julianne established that the effects of social isolation outweigh those of smoking 15 cigarettes per day., obesity and other risk factors of mortality.
Today, we shall take a look at the dangers of loneliness and social isolation, and discuss ways to avert them.
Social Isolation vs. Feeling Lonely
When an individual lacks contact with members of the society, they are said to be socially isolated. Feeling lonely is the psychological manifestation of isolation (Gierveld, 2016). Feeling lonely is an emotion- a feeling- and is, thus, usually temporary.
Since social relationships are crucial in maintaining our health, both social isolation and loneliness are to blame for the various ailments we shall discuss in this article. In fact, morbidity and mortality in the elderly exhibit an inverse correlation with social contact, which sadly reduces due to strained finances, reduced mobility and the death of acquaintances.
We shall tackle some of these problems. There are various strategies you could adopt to improve your social activity. The second part of this post will explore some of these strategies.
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Health Risks of Social Isolation & Feeling Lonely
Feeling lonely and feeling depressed are always linked to arteriosclerosis (the hardening of arteries). Arteriosclerosis could lead to a brain stroke or heart attack. Hardening of the arteries triggers the production of hormones that could alter platelets, resulting in severe clots. This could result in aneurysms (Johnson & Theorell, 1989). Reduced blood flow to the brain could reinforce the loneliness and depression. Arteriosclerosis also results in autoimmune responses which cause inflammations that may alter one’s behavior. Hardened blood vessels also contract, resulting in elevated blood pressure. Therefore, isolation also leads to heart problems such as enlarged heart, coronary artery disease or heart failure.
Higher Mortality Rates
Social isolation has been connected to the rising death rates. The elderly who stay far away from their next of kin mostly die earlier than they had a relative around (House, 2001). Due to advanced age, these people need someone who is there to take care of tasks that require mobility and resilience. They are also most likely to require emergency medical attention, since medical emergencies are common in old age. In young people, loneliness is known to cause premature death the same way obesity and chain smoking does (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). Loneliness increases the levels of fibrinogen, a blood clotting protein always released in anticipation of loss and injury. This raises the chances of one experiencing a sudden cardiac arrest or brain stroke.
A Decline in Mental and Social Health
Social isolation is to blame for a myriad of neurodegenerative diseases. Feeling lonely causes a reduction in cognition, resulting in dementia. Thus, it is a contributor to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Social isolation plays a huge part in the manifestation of personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia (Kawachi & Berkman, 2001). Lonely people are also most likely to suffer depression, as they are less content with their lives. Socially withdrawn individuals are usually helpless and pessimistic.
Lonely people also engage more in antisocial behavior. Besides depression, socially isolated are prone to social anxiety. Being alone, one develops feelings of inferiority such as lowered self-esteem and the fear of rejection. Groundbreaking research has blamed addiction on social isolation, and not necessarily chemical hooks. These people turn to drugs as an alternative to social interactions. Loneliness is also known to cause obsessive-compulsive disorders such as hoarding.
Physiological and Psychosocial disorders
Feeling lonely leads to immune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Isolation leads to chronic stress, which always results in inflammation causing inflammatory diseases (Uchino, et al, 1996). Loneliness also results in poor sleep patterns that result in fatigue and lowered energy. Isolated individuals are also prone to both chronic and acute stress. Loneliness has also been linked to the rising rates of suicide attempts, especially in young adults. The lonelier one gets, the more suicidal thought they have.
How you can avoid the health effects of feeling lonely
‘Make stress your friend’
Stress is a direct result of feeling lonely. According to Kelly McGonigal (2013), it’s not stress that harms us, but the belief that it does (you could watch the interesting ted talk here). Thus, to protect ourselves from the harmful effects of stress, we should change the mindset. Stress is our response to danger, and is characterized by a surge of energy, which instead of ostracizing, we could use to effectively carry out tasks.
Social support structures
The elderly and ailing require constant social support (Landis, et al, 1988). Through local groups, alternative therapies, volunteer programs and religious groups, these people can get support from members of the community.
You could join a book club, adult classes, church group, local outings and community activities. Besides connecting you with other people, these activities keep one occupied and thus avoiding the trappings of loneliness (Umberson, et al, 1988).
Other activities that could reduce social isolation include:
- Get a companion pet- pets make great companions since they love their owner unconditionally, and help alleviate feelings of stress and loneliness.
- Regular exercise- exercise gets your brain centers to produce dopamine, a feel-good hormone that eliminates the low feeling of being alone.
- Find a hobby- participating in your hobby gets you connected to similar people, and helps make good use of your time.
- Learn a new skill- learning something challenging also gets you in a great mood, and allows you to socialize with others in the same class.
- Make friends- while it may be difficult for some, making friends is easy and a great way to find meaningful social interactions.
- Get on social media such as meetup.com – social media connects people with similar interests and hobbies.
In every community, there are individuals who are more likely to feel lonely. They include: sexual minorities, the disabled, cultural minorities and seniors. Society should ensure there are enough social structures to help these individuals. Eradicating social isolation could result in a reduced spending on health, if done right.
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- De Jong Gierveld, J., Van Tilburg, T., & Dykstra, P. (2016). Loneliness and social isolation.
- Johnson, J. V., Hall, E. M., & Theorell, T. (1989). Combined effects of job strain and social isolation on cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortality in a random sample of the Swedish male working population. Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health, 271-279.
- House, J. S. (2001). Social isolation kills, but how and why? Psychosomatic medicine, 63(2), 273-274.
- Kawachi, I., & Berkman, L. F. (2001). Social ties and mental health. Journal of Urban health, 78(3), 458-467.
- Uchino, B. N., Cacioppo, J. T., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (1996). The relationship between social support and physiological processes: a review with emphasis on underlying mechanisms and implications for health. Psychological bulletin, 119(3), 488.
- McGonigal, Kelly. (2013, September 4) How to Make Stress Your Friend |TED Talk Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcGyVTAoXEU
- House, J. S., Umberson, D., & Landis, K. R. (1988). Structures and processes of social support. Annual review of sociology, 14(1), 293-318.
- House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241(4865), 540.
- Holt-Lunstad, Julianne, et al. “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality a meta-analytic review.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 10.2 (2015): 227-237.
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Hi, I would like to cite this article. Could you email me the name of the author please?
Authors are: Aaron Mellow, MNT, CNPT and Dr. Miles Nichols