The Importance of Avoiding Social Isolation

We’ve all felt lonely from time to time, and that is a totally normal part of life, but many people don’t know that chronic loneliness is actually a serious health risk both mentally and physically. Loneliness is a growing epidemic that affects about 60 million Americans; the amount has doubled since the 80’s. It is more important now than ever to maintain good friendships and relationships because having them around can make a huge difference not only in easing the pressures of life but also in your health.

A new wave of research suggests that chronic loneliness is as much of a threat to your health as obesity and smoking. We need a community in order to thrive, and Dr. Richard Lang, MD, chair of the Cleveland Clinic preventative medicine department says it is as important as how well you eat, sleep, and exercise. Chronic loneliness basically puts the brain into self-preservation mode, morning cortisol goes up and does not shut off as effectively at night resulting in a poor night’s sleep. Loneliness can alter gene expression because certain genes get turned off as the body prepares for perceived assaults. This increases stress and aging in the body. Animal studies show that isolation alters levels of dopamine as well and may cause impulsive behavior.

The effects of loneliness are so pronounced that it can even alter life expectancy. Its numerous negative effects suppress the immune system, decrease cognitive function, and increase the risk for serious life-threatening diseases like vascular (32% higher), inflammatory and heart disease (29% higher). In fact, people with chronic loneliness are 45% more likely to die an early death and 64% higher risk of developing dementia. On the other hand, people with strong ties to social networks, friends, and family are 50% less likely to die at any time than those who are socially isolated.

Loneliness is more common among elderly people, people with mood disorders, and people without a college education. About 1/3 of Americans over 65 live alone and the groups of marginalized people rarely have anyone to talk to about important personal matters.

Some new research also suggests that loneliness might not necessarily be caused by poor social skills or lack of social support, but by an unusual sensitivity to social cues. Meaning that some people are more likely to perceive ambiguous social cues as negative and get defensive by pushing people away. It is very helpful for people like this to get help in re-examining how they perceive social cues through social training.

As for older people, their loneliness might simply be a different type of loneliness. Many of their friends and family might have passed away before them and they might be having trouble with the grief of loss and also adapting to a word that is changing around them in their old age. Making sure these people have access to transportation can help them to maintain social connections in their life.

Temporary loneliness does happen in times of life transitions, but it is very different from chronic state loneliness. Many cases of chronic loneliness are simply situational loneliness that was never dealt with. Some people are never able to rebuild after a loss, a move, or retirement. It’s important to try to reach out if you know someone who is going through a time of transition like this.

There is a lot of stigma about being lonely; so many people will not openly admit it. They internalize the problem and believe it’s because they don’t have good social skills or they are just losers, so they are very shy about asking for company or help. They might think they are not intelligent or athletic enough to have friends, etc. and many of these notions are similar to what we see in people with depression.

It’s also very important to remember that feeling lonely is not the same as being alone. Some people will have an extensive social world, but their internal experience is loneliness because they may not feel like they can truly share for some reason, like maintaining a reputation. And then there are people like introverts who do not require a lot of actual social contact with others, but small amounts of meaningful deep social contact with select people. Introverts do actually enjoy time to themselves and that does not necessarily make them lonely at all.

References

Gupta, Dr. Sanjay. “Why You Should Treat Loneliness as a Chronic Illness.”EverydayHealth.com. Everyday Health, 04 Aug. 2015. Web. 04 Jan. 2017.

Khullar, Dhruv. “How Social Isolation Is Killing Us.” The New York Times. N.p., 22 Dec. 2016. Web. 04 Jan. 2017.

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