For almost a full year, fear of the COVID-19 virus kept many people around the world confined to their homes, only interacting with colleagues, friends and relatives by phone or video. While the lockdown may have been necessary to reduce the spread of the virus, it contributed to the rise of two other significant health conditions: social isolation and loneliness.
These conditions are not the same, though they may be related. Social isolation is a lack of social contact with others, while loneliness is feeling alone or disconnected with or without social contact. Social isolation can cause some people to feel lonely, but even people who socialize often can feel lonely if their relationships are not satisfying or fulfilling.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that both are public health risks that affect a significant number of people in the United States, especially older adults. One report found that more than one-third of adults age 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of those age 65 and older are socially isolated. Older adults are more likely to live alone, and factors, such as retirement, hearing loss, decreased mobility and illness, can limit their interactions with others.
Loneliness and isolation can lead to significant emotional and mental health issues; along with feeling disconnected, people experiencing loneliness may find it hard to trust others or may feel threatened. Like physical pain, emotional pain can activate the body’s stress responses. Over time, this can result in chronic inflammation and reduced immunity, which can raise the risk of chronic diseases.
“Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for serious health conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity, depression, and anxiety,” says Michael Pham, DO, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Carlsbad.
According to the CDC:
- Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes.
- Social isolation was associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia.
- Poor social relationships characterized by social isolation or loneliness were associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
- Heart failure patients who experienced loneliness had nearly 4 times the average risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
In addition, loneliness was associated with increasing depression, anxiety and suicide among both older and younger adults. In a June 2020 study, symptoms of anxiety, depression, substance use associated with COVID-19 and serious suicidal thoughts in the previous 30 days were most commonly reported by those ages 18–24.
If you’re feeling isolated or lonely, or know someone who is, it’s important to take action to help prevent negative physical and emotional effects. Studies show that people who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others experience better moods, have a sense of purpose and tend to live longer. These tips can help alleviate isolation and loneliness:
- Make self-care a priority. Exercise, eat healthy meals, get enough sleep and try to spend time outdoors every day.
- Make an effort every day to connect with family or friends in person, over the phone, by text or online. Go for a walk with a friend or neighbor or play games together online.
- Find an activity that you enjoy. Join an online book club, take a class or join a group that shares your interest. Check with your local community center or faith-based organization for options.
- Consider adopting a pet if you can. Caring for a companion animal can be rewarding and comforting and can lower stress and blood pressure. If you can’t have a pet at home, look into volunteering at a local shelter or pet-sitting for a neighbor.
- Volunteer at an organization that is meaningful to you. Becoming involved with a cause can ward off feelings of loneliness and help you meet people with similar interests.
“If feelings of isolation or loneliness are affecting your emotional or physical health, talk to your doctor,” says Dr. Pham. “Be very honest about how you’re feeling and how it is affecting your life. Your doctor can offer suggestions and resources to help you feel better and improve your quality of life.”