New research: How loneliness and social isolation is damaging our health

Clinical pharmacist Mike Wakeman of Neubria, which specialises in natural supplements, reviews some of the emerging data in relation to loneliness and social isolation

Loneliness and social isolation have been found to be a risk factor for a number of health troubles including:

  • Poorer memory and cognitive functions among older adults
  • Fragmented sleep
  • Increased vascular resistance (resistance in the circulation system that can cause blood pressure to rise) and blood pressure
  • Metabolic syndrome – a cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes
  • Increased stress response (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical) activity4
  • Altered gene expression indicative of decreased inflammatory control and increased glucocorticoid insensitivity
  • Diminished immunity, and impulse control.

New UK research examining the social and psychological impacts of COVID-19 has found that social distancing and isolation practices have created a significant social and psychological impact according to the study subjects on their lives, especially in relation to loss. 

This experience of loss, which one participant likened to a process of “grieving”, consisted of three practical social and economic losses:

  • loss of (in person) social interaction
  • loss of income
  • loss of structure and routine.

These, in turn, led to three psychological and emotional “losses”:

  • motivation
  • meaning
  • self-worth.

Reviewing the research in more detail, the suddenness and extensiveness of the lack of face-to-face contact had, even after only one week of lockdown, already “taken its toll on mental health”, leaving study participants feeling “alienated”.  A number talked about feeling depressed or anxious as a result of social distancing or isolation. 

Those taking part in the study also reported on how a loss of income, either through the permanent loss of a job or through temporary loss (via lost customers or being furloughed), had left them feeling “quite depressed”. 

They also expressed a loss of structure and routine. The inability to go to work, or for some the significant re-structuring of work patterns, including balancing home working with homeschooling, meant that people felt “overwhelmed”.

People in this latest research study discussed how impacts like losing their job or not being able to go to work, and not being able to socialise with friends, meant they experienced a general loss of meaning in life. 

Study subjects also spoke of a loss of motivation to perform basic everyday tasks, such as personal hygiene and grooming or exercising. For some, this lack of motivation had left them feeling “sluggish”. 

Researchers also found that people had a loss of self-worth.  These emotional and psychological losses were particularly acute for those living in more urban, densely populated cities. 

And social isolation, according to the same research study, has a scary effect on regular eating behaviour, reminiscent of the effect of social exclusion with eating behaviour in obese adolescents.

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Lynda Hamilton Parker is a Scottish PR expert and independent publisher

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