Isolation is an epidemic affecting mental and physical health


There is a common notion that technology helps us connect more deeply. However, the exact opposite is true. The world is getting increasingly more isolated day by day and that is a problem for our collective health, wealth and well-being. Rates of isolation have doubled since 1980. According to a study done by the AARP, 40 percent of adults ages 45 and over report feeling lonely and research suggests that the actual number is much higher. This isn’t just a problem for middle-aged people. The number of teens describing themselves as lonely has only increased since the rise in usage of social media platforms such as Snapchat and Facebook, despite the supposed social connectedness they promote. Employees and CEOs also feel detached from their peers.

This isn’t a problem that exists in a vacuum, of course. Many people have tried to explain it by blaming social media thinking. It is believed that people go on social media and engorge themselves on likes and heart emojis to escape the feeling of social ineptitude and ignore the fact their lives are spiraling down into chaos. It is also believed that regardless of other factors, an increasing elderly population means more people in senior homes without their families, a factor that could result in loneliness. It very well may be that both of these beliefs are true. Regardless, the fact remains that loneliness is becoming an increasingly dangerous issue due to the number of people it has affected.

Loneliness carries along with it a profound impact on the health of an individual.  Social isolation is linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular health issues, dementia, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease and personality disorders. There is also the concept of comfort that comes into play here.

“We eat foods that make us feel good, and when we’re lonely, we have foods that distract us from feeling lonely," said relationship expert April Masini in an interview with Medical Daily.

Loneliness may hinder one’s willingness to go beyond the comforts of their home. The resulting lack of physical activity and fresh air combined with the poor nutrition from “comfort” food leads to a slew of other issues, including increased risk of hypertension, suppressed immunity and weight gain.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy explained this matter in full on Harvard Business Review’s website. According to Murthy, “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.” He also pointed out that the problem of loneliness is not just one that affects people’s health; it affects their wealth too. He referenced a study conducted by the Wharton School  at the University of Pennsylvania, which states that loneliness negatively impacts performance tasks.

Murthy also pointed out that loneliness limits creativity and impairs reasoning and decision making. This is due to the fact that the cortisol — often referred to as the “stress hormone” — produced by loneliness can hijack the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for such activities. Thus, Murthy claims that loneliness “isn’t just bad for our health; it’s also bad for business.” He points to research done by teams at Gallup, a U.S. research-based, worldwide performance-management consulting company. The teams found that strong social connections can result in higher job engagement as well as higher-quality work, which raises self-esteem and self-efficacy levels. The opposite is true when people feel detached from their peers and co-workers.

Knowing this information about social connections and job engagement now poses the question of what must be done and whose responsibility it is to come up with a solution. The government and health care system definitely have a stake in the matter, since it concerns the general public so thoroughly. These institutions do have important roles to play in understanding the situation and how to deal with it. Ultimately, it must be the responsibility of the institutions where people spend most of their time: family, school, work and other social organizations. Companies, meanwhile, have the power to drive change by strengthening connections amongst their own employees as well as inspiring other organizations to follow their lead.

It is important to be aware that loneliness affects people in different ways, and what works for one person to combat the effects of it might not do the same thing for another person. One may consider engaging in non-sedentary activities, talking to a therapist, going outside, volunteering, joining clubs or adopting pets.