Loneliness & Isolation – Health Hint!

Dec 8, 2021

Federated Health Charities’ mission is to improve the health and quality of life of all Ontarians by supporting 21 different health charities providing critical services to those experiencing, or affected by, illness.  We believe education and prevention are key parts of supporting the health of our communities so our weekly Health Hint series strives to provide tangible and easy to implement hints and tips on how to maintain your health, prevent disease, and enjoy increased quality of life.  Check out our latest Health Hint on the impacts of loneliness & isolation.  We hope you find it helpful.  If you would like to join our efforts to support the health of Ontario please consider a donation to Federated Health Charities. 

Loneliness

Loneliness is an unpleasant and negative emotional experience. It is often connected with feelings of anxiety about a lack of connection or communication with other people, or the possibility of losing contact with others in the future. Loneliness has also been described as social suffering and a psychological mechanism to motivate individuals to seek social connections. Loneliness is often defined as a person’s connection to others, or more specifically, the unpleasant feelings that arise when a person’s network of social relationships is defective in some vital way. (Psychology Today Stuff).

Isolation

Social isolation and loneliness are two different situations and feeling. It is possible to isolate (alone) without feeling lonely. In contrast, even when surrounded by others, humans might feel lonely. Loneliness is the sensation of being alone, regardless of social engagement, whereas a lack of social ties is referred to as isolation. Some people experience loneliness as a result of isolation, whereas others experience loneliness without being isolated.

Are Loneliness and Isolation a Mental Health problem?

Although loneliness is not a mental health issue in and of itself, the two are intertwined. When you are experiencing mental health challenges, you’re more likely to feel lonely. Additionally, loneliness may contribute to struggles with mental health, especially if it lasts for an extended period. So, loneliness can stem from mental health struggles, while mental health struggles can lead to loneliness.  Research has shown that loneliness can be linked to an increased risk of mental health issues such as sadness, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems, and increased stress. (Psychology Today Stuff)

Impact of Loneliness & Isolation

Common Impacts

  • Social isolation substantially increases a person’s chance of early mortality. 
  • Social isolation increases the risk of dementia by 50%. 
  • Poor social interactions, characterized by social isolation or loneliness, were linked to a 29% rise in heart disease and a 32% increase in stroke risk.
  • Loneliness may increase risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide. 

(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Endocrine change

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting, John Cacioppo, professor of analytical studies at the University of Chicago, discussed how loneliness could weaken the immune system, raising blood pressure and raise the risk of depression. Because of increased stress, he found that loneliness increases the body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol, which weakens the immune system and makes people more likely to get sick. On the other side, problems sleeping and an increase in Alzheimer’s disease link to loneliness. The loneliest people in Cacioppo’s study had blood pressure up to 30 units higher than socially active people, making them three times more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes. They are twice as likely to die from heart disease and stroke.

Weaken willpower

The study found that the health gap between lonely and socially active people was similar to the gap between smokers and non-smokers and obese and non-obese people. Scientists have also found that loneliness weakens willpower and determination, making it challenging to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Lowered levels of exercise is seen, while increased levels of non-nutritive calories are also common.  

Loneliness can affect brain health and mental acuity

Experts found that Loneliness increases the risk of dementia by up to 20%. Plt has a similar effect to other more well-established risk factors for dementia such as diabetes, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, and hearing loss. (William Harms, 2014)  

           

How does loneliness & isolation lead to illness

Loneliness and social isolation can exacerbate and contribute to unhealthy behaviours such as exercising less, drinking more, and smoking more. Moreover, the body experiences loneliness as stress and can activate the body’s stress response. Thus, a prolonged reaction can lead to increased inflammation and weakened immunity, especially in older people. (Amy Novotney, 2019)

Solutions

To conclude, since we can perceive both loneliness and isolation, rather than reality, focusing on addressing negative thought patterns that underly the feelings of loneliness and isolation can often be the first step (Novotney, 2019).  Also, to combat real isolation and loneliness, it is important focus on fostering connection to groups and communities in order to maintain a sense of belonging and purpose (Novotney, 2019).  This could include church groups, clubs, group travel, sports or recreation activities, meet up groups, friendship apps, and more. 

Since we are social beings, by nature, it is critical for us to have social and emotional connections in order to live long and healthy lives.

We hope you liked our latest Health Hint!
Written by Ashley Chen

References

Sussex Publishers. (n.d.). Loneliness. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/basics/loneliness.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 29). Loneliness and social isolation linked to serious health conditions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). The risks of social isolation. Monitor on Psychology. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation.

Harms, W. (n.d.). AAAS 2014: Loneliness is a major health risk for older adults. University of Chicago News. https://news.uchicago.edu/story/aaas-2014-loneliness-major-health-risk-older-adults.

Novotney, A. (2019). The risks of social isolation. American Psychological Association.

https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation

Related articles here:

Health Hint: Grounding Techniques for Anxiety

Health Hint! – Intersection of Mental and Physical Health: Depression/Anxiety as a result of Physical Ailments

Health Hint! – Mental Health Treatment Options

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