The Loneliness Epidemic
There's an epidemic sweeping the world, and it's not the one you think.
A new paper published in the Trends in Cognitive Sciences journal looks at the profound effects that a solitary lifestyle can have on the health, including a solitary lifestyle due to social distancing. Co-authored by Associate Professor Danilo Bzdok and Emeritus Professor Robin Dunbar, the paper explored a broad range of other studies to find that social isolation has a direct negative effect on health in a variety of ways.
Specifically, social isolation was a predictor for problems with reasoning and memory performances, lack of resilience to disease, issues with brain connectivity and function, upsets in hormone balance, and perhaps most frighteningly, death.
Loneliness is also somewhat contagious; the study found that lonely feelings can spread through a social network, negatively skewing social perception and causing increased of susceptibility to disease, increased risk of death, and for older people, increased risk of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.
Part of the reason for the devastating health effects of loneliness stems from its influence on the immune system. Just feeling lonely, or having few friends, weakens the immune response to outside threats. On the other hand, people with a more connected and active social life have measurably better adjusted biomarkers for physiological function, including lower systolic blood pressure and lower levels of a molecular response to inflammation called C-reactive protein.
Humans evolved as a social species. The more integrated we are into a social circle, the better our resistance to illness, and our survival. Strong interpersonal relationships were found to be crucial for survival across a person's whole lifespan. In fact, people who belong to more groups, such as sports clubs or hobby groups, have been found to decrease their chance of future depression by 25%.
In this present moment during the COVID-19 pandemic, hobby groups still are for the most part not recommended to meet in physical space, but until the sickness is better contained, it is crucial to your health and the health of those in your social circle to find a way to continue to connect with people. Videochatting can be a hassle, but a weekly appointment with a friend is worth it, and now is the time to check in on the more isolated people you know, especially if they're elderly.
As Bzdok said, "We are social creatures. Social interplay and cooperation have fuelled the rapid ascent of human culture and civilization. Yet, social species struggle when forced to live in isolation. From babies to the elderly, psychosocial embedding in interpersonal relationships is critical for survival. It is now more urgent than ever to narrow the knowledge gap of how social isolation impacts the human brain as well as mental and physical well-being."