As countries across the globe hunker down, long-term isolation can have profound physical and psychological effects.
As countries across the globe hunker down, Holt-Lunstad’s research presents a stark look at what social isolation over a period of years can do to the body. She examined data from across the globe to study the effects of people being socially isolated or lonely, or living alone.
“Each of these significantly predict risk for premature death,” Holt-Lunstad said.
“Loneliness increases earlier death by 26%, social-isolation by 29% and living alone by 32%.”
Holt-Lunstad didn’t find that one cause of death was more prevalent than another. The risk of every cause of death – including heart disease, cancer, stroke, renal failure – increased from isolation.
A period of a few weeks in isolation should not lead to the inflammation and risk of cardiovascular trouble that Holt-Lunstad described. People could still see an impact on their health, however.
“We do have evidence that these [periods of shorter isolation] can have immediate and short-term kinds of effects on our physiology. But, for instance, if your blood pressure is elevated acutely, that’s going to have a different kind of an effect than if your blood pressure’s elevated chronically,” Holt-Lunstad said.
“For those with underlying pre-existing conditions, those acute elevations might precipitate some sort of acute event. But for most of rest of us, who may not have some kind of underlying condition, we hope that this would just be acute and wouldn’t have these long-term effects.”
One of the reasons people can suffer in social-isolation is because personal relationships can help us cope with stress, Holt-Linstad said.
“For instance: the ongoing uncertainty of what’s going on right now in the world, your body’s response to that may differ. Depending on the extent to which you feel like you have the resources you need to cope with that. And that in large part may be dependent on whether or not you feel like you have others in your life you can rely on. That you’ve got someone who has your back or you can count on, or you can get through it together.”
Dhruv Khullar, a physician and researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, said short periods of isolation can cause increase anxiety or depression “within days”.
“We have evolved to be social creatures. For all the history of humanity, people have been in family structures, people have been in groups, we’re evolved to kind of crave and rely on that interaction with other human beings,” Khullar said.
“So when we don’t have that it’s a huge void in the way that we go about being human. This is something that has been kind of hard-wired into who we are as beings.”