The impact of loneliness and social isolation can be debilitating. Beyond the obvious psychological and emotional consequences, both conditions can seriously affect your brain and heart, as well as your ability to fight viruses.
Loneliness vs. Social Isolation: What’s the Difference?
Social isolation is the state of being physically cut off from others. Most of us have experienced this during the COVID-19 pandemic. We may be at home by ourselves or perhaps with family, but still solated.
Loneliness is a feeling of distress that comes from a perception of being disconnected from others. Those experiencing loneliness can be with family or in a crowd and still feel lonely.
Does Social Isolation Affect Your Health?
Social isolation produces a range of effects on the body. One study found that social isolation caused changes in brain structure, which reflected the functional demands of solitary versus social living.
Other researchers have determined that social isolation increases the risk of chronic disease and mortality. This same team further studied the effects of social isolation on gene activity. They found that certain genes triggered more inflammation and other genes lowered the antiviral response.
Summary of the Physical Effects of Social Isolation
- Changes to the brain
- Greater risk of chronic disease
- Greater chance of mortality
- Impact on genes controlling inflammation
- Impact on genes controlling antiviral activity
Does Loneliness Affect Your Health?
Scientists using twin studies found that social isolation and loneliness have separate risk factors. They found that loneliness was highly related to cardiovascular disease, major depressive disorder, and metabolic traits.
Comparison of Effects
Loneliness affects the brain by contributing to major depression and the heart by increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
While social isolation affects the brain as well, it also adversely impacts the body systemically, hindering its ability to fight disease, by increasing inflammation and weakening its antiviral defenses. This could obviously have implications for when it comes to the flu or COVID-19.
One researcher compared the risks of social isolation and loneliness to other risk factors. Her observations led to the conclusion that the effects are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day or having alcohol abuse disorder. She also stated that social isolation and loneliness are twice as harmful as obesity.
No matter how we try to quantify or describe social isolation or loneliness, they have negative effects on the mind and body that are often misunderstood or overlooked.
What Can I Do to Help?
Governments—and even architects—recognize this issue and have tried to find ways to reduce barriers, ensure safety, and bring people together. By doing so, there is physical and emotional security for those suffering from loneliness and social isolation.
But even when our physical surroundings are ideal, if people won’t leave their rooms and go to common areas for social interaction, for example, the government and housing organizations cannot be blamed.
Often, what is needed is for someone to seek out those who may be suffering and bring them to the activity, introduce them, and see that they are interacting. In other words, be a friend. These people are stuck in old mental thought patterns and probably will not break out on their own.
This is especially true of men. For some reason, men do not naturally seek out social interactions the way women do. They will sit in their chair forever unless someone comes along and says “let’s go to the…”
This is your chance to be the guiding light. Go and seek out these people. Visit them and try to get them to interact with each other. Taking on this role will make a great chapter in your life’s book.