Our understanding health and the overall human condition is improving with each year. Only recently, it’s been suggested that dietary cholesterol might not have a huge impact on health, while chronic disease is quickly on track to eat up 100% of our budget within a few decades if not tackled. But there’s as much progress being made in the fields of mental health, too. Recently, a lot of attention has been brought to the idea of loneliness. Feeling lonely, being alone, and becoming isolated are all much more dangerous than any of us might have imagined, in fact.
A new epidemic
Isolation isn’t just getting a lot more attention from the medical community because our understanding is improving. It’s becoming clear that it is very much a growing problem. 25% of people in a series of studies described themselves as having no meaningful social support at all. That means no close friends, confidants, or community around them. That’s an increase from 10% back in 1985. There are many concerns as to how modern life might be causing this increase in isolation. Social media has often been blamed for putting barriers up in front of real communication, and there is evidence to suggest as much. However, economic disparity and the measures it enforces, such as longer working hours and longer commutes, are suggested to shoulder even more of the blame. The fact more people live well into old age has also been considered a contributor. But suffice to say, the problem is on the rise, so it merits our attention.
Lonely is less healthy
So, more people are feeling lonely than before, if the data is correct. Is that really something to be concerned about? All the evidence points to the answer: yes, very much so. Loneliness has been linked to a variety of negative physical health effects. People who would describe themselves as alone or isolated have shown an increased risk of chronic disease, a weaker immune system, more difficulty recovering from injuries, and even shorter lifespans in general. The links between mind and body are still being explored tenuously, as with all elements of mental health, but the evidence suggests that loneliness is a lot more than a state of mind.
Nights are longer
One of the most demonstrable effects that isolation has on our health is its relationship to sleep. A good night’s sleep is crucial to our body’s energy levels, our chances of obesity, stress and much, much more. In a study that tested a group, of which 5% admitted they felt they had no strong social connections, those people were shown to be much more prone to ongoing sleep problems. But even groups with slight differences in the other 95% showed as much.
Affecting both heart and mind
The lack of good sleep habits is just one of the ways that feelings of isolation can contribute to stress. However, the increased vulnerability to stress has effects that reach even wider than putting you in an even worse mood. The fact that stress is so closely linked to our understanding of heart disease may be one of the strongest contributors to the data suggesting that isolation leads to increased risk of chronic illness. Social media has also been shown to be one of the surprising causes of modern stress, alongside overworking. The mind-body connection is very real, and stress is one of the areas of mental health with the most evidence proving as much. The fact that isolation can play such a key role in stress should be alarming to everyone.
Falling on dependencies
If you asked someone else, you might get the answer that addiction is truly the existential threat of our time. However, our understanding of addiction is one that is continuing to grow, too. Consider the experiment involving the mice which were left alone with access to two bottles of water. One was regular water, the other laced with cocaine. As expected, the addictiveness of cocaine in that isolation led to the eventual death of the mouse in the experiment. However, whenever the mice were given the same access to those bottles, but in a larger group with access to their society and a healthier environment, it was only the isolated mice that continued to drink the laced water. This only goes to further support the notion that substance dependency is a societal problem, not just an individual addiction. It’s why some of the most effective addiction treatment plans make group therapy and communal treatment their priority. Just as support is crucial to recovery, we’re fast learning that feelings of isolation can be just as crucial to the origins of an addiction in the first place.
A fatal risk
To take it even more seriously, isolation has been shown to be one of the most common precursors to self-harm and suicide attempts. Recent studies show that people separated from society’s institutions, such as marriage, religion, and community groups, are significantly more likely to do harm to themselves.
In the long-term
Isolation has much more dangerous implications when it comes to longer-term health issues, especially in the area of mental health and intellectual capacity. In particular, dementia and Alzheimer’s have been shown to be much more common in people who have spent years living alone or with no regular contact with close friends and family. There’s some speculation that the reason that exercise is effective at fighting dementia isn’t purely down to the impact of better physical health. Some suggest that the fact that many exercises are social interactions, such as joining a yoga class or a spin group, plays a huge role, as well.
The older we are, the higher the risk
Loneliness is a growing concern for everyone. Financial hardship, addiction, social media obsession and the like are just as likely to hit the young as anyone else. However, older people suffer a uniquely common struggle with isolation. As time goes on, many close relationships fall by the wayside, and an increasing number of older people are living alone than ever before. 43% of elderly people asked in a survey report feeling lonely or isolated on a regular basis. They’ve also been shown to suffer more declines in health and even to die faster than those who still have stable, close relationships. Solitary people in older age also tend to develop habits that cause them to isolate themselves from those closest to them, meaning that the effects of loneliness can actually be contagious in this age group.
Lonely is not just for the alone
It’s crucial to understand that loneliness and isolation can be experienced in any kind environment. You can spend plenty of time with your family and have a very large peer group, but you can still be subject to chronic feelings of loneliness in your day-to-day life. Doctors recommend that the strategy to combatting loneliness isn’t through quantity but through quality. If we spend more of our time with fewer people, we are much less likely to self-identity as lonely. Disability and mental health issues such as depression prove to even further isolate people even when they might have a very wide support system around them to the outside observer.
So, how do we avoid the risk of becoming isolated in our day-to-day life? Forging strong social bonds is crucial. If you are one of those with a wide circle of friends, start thinking about which amongst them you truly consider the closest and make an effort to spend more time with them. If you suffer from isolating conditions like anxiety or deafness, finding support groups can be hugely helpful. Otherwise, it’s worth simply taking any opportunity to socialize with new peers. Whether it’s striking up a conversation with a colleague or using apps to help you find friends or activity groups, make the effort. It doesn’t come naturally or easily to everyone, but it doesn’t have to.
For those who don’t struggle with feelings of loneliness, it’s important to keep an eye out for those who might be. Look at relatives, particularly older ones, friends, and even colleagues. You can help someone who is lonely simply by making more of an effort to engage them socially. With the high correlations between isolation and addiction, mental health issues, dementia, and suicide, keeping a watchful eye on our neighbors has become significantly more important. The attempt at social interaction doesn’t have to be elaborate, either. Inviting them for coffee, to join you at a social event or activity, or even for a walk while you grab some groceries can be just as enriching and fulfilling as setting up a date. In fact, for the more introverted kind of people living in isolation, the more casual encounter can be a lot less draining for them so they can be a more reliable option.
Modern society seems to come with the caveat of increased risks of loneliness. While it will take society a long time to adapt to this new understanding, there’s plenty in our power to do as individuals. Recognize the dangers and cultivate better quality relationships, even if you have to do it from scratch. It’s for the good of your health.