Emerging research explores the wide-ranging, negative consequences of social isolation resulting in loneliness. Canadian and UK investigators discovered loneliness can have a severe impact on our psychological well-being and physical health, including decreased life span.

Researchers reviewed a broad range of studies to assess the potential impact of social isolation in response to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic. They note that social isolation on such a massive scale is an unprecedented phenomenon.

The findings, co-authored by Associate Professor Danilo Bzdok (McGill University and Mila Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute) and Emeritus Professor Robin Dunbar (University of Oxford) appear in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Investigators examined a broad range of studies and discovered loneliness can have a severe impact. Among their findings:

  • having strong interpersonal relationships is critical for survival across the entire lifespan;
  • social isolation is a significant predictor of the risk of death;
  • insufficient social stimulation affects reasoning and memory performances, hormone homeostasis, brain grey/white-matter, connectivity and function, as well as resilience to physical and mental disease;
  • feelings of loneliness can spread through a social network, causing negatively skewed social perception, escalating morbidity and mortality, and, in older people, precipitating the onset of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Loneliness directly impairs the immune system, making us less resistant to diseases and infections. Indeed, feeling lonely and having few friends can result in a particularly poor immune defense.

People who are more socially integrated, however, have better adjusted biomarkers for physiological function, including lower systolic blood pressure, lower body mass index, and lower levels of C-reactive protein (another molecular response to inflammation).

Humans are intensely social and benefit psychologically and physically from social interaction. The tighter we are embedded in a network of friends, for example, the less likely we are to become ill and the higher our rates of survival.

Researchers discovered people who belong to more groups, such as sports clubs, church, hobby groups, have been found to reduce their risk of future depression by almost 25 percent.

Said Bzdok, “We are social creatures. Social interplay and cooperation have fueled the rapid ascent of human culture and civilization.

“Yet, social species struggle when forced to live in isolation. From babies to the elderly, psychosocial embedding in interpersonal relationships is critical for survival. It is now more urgent than ever to narrow the knowledge gap of how social isolation impacts the human brain as well as mental and physical well-being.”

“Loneliness has accelerated in the past decade,” Dunbar added. “Given the potentially severe consequences this can have on our mental and physical health, there is growing recognition and political will to confront this evolving societal challenge.”

Source: McGill University