Humans are by nature gregarious. Deviating from this natural inclination, such as in the case of social isolation, can result in numerous negative mental and physical health conditions according to studies.
Negative Mental and Physical Health Impacts of Social Isolation According to Studies
In the book “Social Psychology and Human Nature,” authors R. F. Baumeister and B. J. Bushman explained that social animals, including humans, have brains that are wired in a way that they will seek intra-species relationships.
Humans, to be specific, have brains wired for cooperation and even for forming relationships needed for reproduction and collective survival.
The gregariousness of men and women is innate and inviolable. These are the reasons why detachment is not considered a normal inclination. Furthermore, according to several studies, prolonged detachment can lead to serious mental and physical health problems.
Mental Health Problems
Research has explored the different mental health problems that can arise from social isolation. Social and behavioral sciences researcher Stephen Ilardi described social isolation as a “modern plague” and it puts people at risk of developing clinical depression while increasing their susceptibility to use and abuse psychoactive drugs.
Several studies have also explored how the mandated lockdowns and quarantines during the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic resulted in mental health issues.
Ruta Clair et al. surveyed 309 adults to understand the effects of forced isolation during the pandemic. Findings revealed that perceived social isolation was associated with poor life satisfaction across all domains and higher levels of substance abuse.
Other studies have directed their investigation toward the impact of social isolation on the cognitive or intellectual abilities of individuals.
Note that the study of psychologist Oscar Ybarra and his team concluded that simple interactions with another person can improve memory and test performances. The same study also concluded that those who have lesser social interactions tend to develop poor memories and other impairments related to higher-level of thinking.
On the other hand, according to psychology professor Chun Shen, social isolation is linked to lower brain volumes in areas related to cognition and a higher risk of dementia.
The study of Jane Evans et al. also revealed that prolonged isolation can alter the levels of an enzyme responsible for controlling the production of the neurosteroid allopregnanolone. This hormone is responsible for regulating emotions and cognitive functions.
It is also important to highlight the fact that the neurological effects of social isolation are also similar to the negative mental health effects of chronic stress.
Physical Health Problems
Social isolation can result in physical ailments. Social psychologist James S. House noted that social isolation kills. His paper published in the American Psychosomatic Society examines and discusses the known negative impacts of prolonged detachment and lack of interpersonal relationships on physical health and overall well-being.
House focused his premise on the notion that social isolation is an epidemic because it tends to predict mortality and serious morbidity in a sample population.
Other studies supported the aforementioned premise. For example, a much-cited meta-analysis by Jullianne Holt-Lunstad et al. concluded that the absence of social connections heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes or drinking six units of alcohol per day.
The World Health Organization also mentioned that isolation can lead to a greater risk of pregnancy complications and higher levels of disability from chronic diseases.
Considering social isolation as a factor for some physical ailments might be hard to digest for some individuals and groups. However, considering the wealth of information available in the literature, researchers agree that the absence of connections, interactions, and relationships has detrimental biological impacts.
House concluded that forming and maintaining ties with people and the community create the necessary conditions for supporting personal health.
For example, a pregnant woman has better chances of having safer pregnancy and delivery if she is surrounded by people who can attend to her special needs. The same is true for an individual with cardiovascular ailments or other chronic conditions.
The World Health Organization reminded that social connections and interpersonal relationships represent one of the social determinants of health.
Importance of Understanding the Negative Health Effects of Social Isolation
Social isolation is a situation in which an individual has a low level of relationships with other people and less diverse connections. The studies mentioned above and the overall discussions highlight that this situation disrupts the biological operation of the brain while also leaving individuals with poor access to the resources needed to maintain health.
The aforementioned mental and physical health problems associated with social isolation nonetheless warrant special attention and a preventive approach. Policies should consider factors that disrupt social cohesion when it comes to promoting public health and healthcare workers should consider personal relationships in providing care.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Clair, R., Gordon, M., Kroon, M., and Reilly, C. 2021. “The Effects of Social Isolation on Well-being and Life Satisfaction During Pandemic. “Humanities and Social Sciences Communications.” 8(1). DOI: 1057/s41599-021-00710-3
- Evans, J., Sun, Y., McGregor, A., and Connor, B. 2012. “Allopregnanolone Regulates Neurogenesis and Depressive/Anxiety-like Behaviour in a Social Isolation Rodent Model of Chronic stress. Neuropharmacology. 63(8): 1315-1326. DOI: 1016/j.neuropharm.2012.08.012
- Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., and Stephenson, D. 2015. Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality.” Perspectives on Psychological Science. 10(2): 227-237. DOI: 1177/1745691614568352
- House, J. S. 2001. “Social Isolation Kills, But How and Why?” Psychosomatic Medicine. 63(2): 273-274. DOI: 1097/00006842-200103000-00011
- Ilardi, S. 2009. “Social Isolation: A Modern Plague.” Psychology Today. Available online
- Shen, C., Rolls, E. T., Cheng, W., Kang, J., Dong, G., Xie, C., Zhao, X.-M., Sahakian, B. J., and Feng, J. 2022. “Associations of Social Isolation and Loneliness With Later Dementia.” Neurolog 99(2): e164-e175. DOI: 10.1212/wnl.0000000000200583
- Ybarra, O., Burnstein, E., Winkielman, P., Keller, M. C., Manis, M., Chan, E., and Rodriguez, J. 2007. “Mental Exercising Through Simple Socializing: Social Interaction Promotes General Cognitive Functioning.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 34(2): 248-259. DOI: 1177/0146167207310454