Loneliness is a human emotion that is complex and unique to everyone. It has no single cause and can look different in many people. A college student may feel lonely despite living in a dorm with hundreds of other students. A senior citizen may feel lonely despite seeing their grandchildren every afternoon. Though many feel lonely even with some connection, there is a large population that spends time in complete isolation from others.

Social isolation is one key factor of loneliness. While loneliness could mean a physical separation from others, loneliness is a state of mind. Biologically, human beings are programmed to want company and connections. When loneliness causes one to feel alone or unwanted, it only fuels the cycle of being socially isolated further. Although it’s hard to measure social isolation and loneliness, recent studies find that being lonely has long-term physical and mental health effects that many are at risk for.

Health Risks of Loneliness

Certain situations such as moving to a new city or losing a spouse can increase your chances of feeling lonely, though others may feel lonely without any change in their lives at all. Depression symptoms such as loss of energy, decreased interest in activities and sadness can be born out of loneliness and further fuel social isolation. If one feels sad or disinterested in activities, they will continue to stay isolated and possibly lose the connections they once had. In the same way, anxiety can also significantly increase due to current loneliness or the fear of being alone in the future.

Along with a decrease in mental health, there are many other ways loneliness negatively affects the body. Social isolation was found to increase a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, and is considered a new rival to smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. Here are some other ways social isolation can be harmful to our health:

  • Social isolation is associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia.
  • Poor social relationships leading to social isolation or loneliness are associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
  • Loneliness is correlated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.
  • Loneliness among heart failure patients is associated with four times the risk of death and a 68% increased risk of hospitalization.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put people at an especially high risk for loneliness. In October of 2020, a national survey reported 36% of people feeling lonely “almost all of the time” or “all of the time,” and 61% of those people were of the ages 18-25. The pandemic caused many students to leave college communities and continue studies at home or to work from home rather than in an office setting. Prior to the pandemic, many millennials moved to new cities to start jobs or school programs where they may not have known anyone. Previously relying on work or school for social connections and then switching to attending online class or working from home has left many isolated in an unfamiliar place. While meeting through Zoom or other virtual meeting services has been a convenient option for things like online gym classes, book clubs and church groups, it may prevent us from making connections we would usually make while in person.

People Most at Risk for Loneliness

In a 2020 CDC report, it was found that certain societal groups commonly struggle with loneliness. Among those are immigrants, LGBTQIA+ communities, minorities and victims of elder abuse. What’s more, about 25% of Americans aged 65 and older consider themselves socially isolated. Widows or homeowners living alone, along with unmarried middle-aged individuals who already have long-term health conditions are also at increased risk. Even people in their 20s and 30s who may be renting homes away from the community they grew up in are at high risk of loneliness and its negative health effects.

Getting Help When Experience Loneliness

The only real way to combat loneliness is to increase your connection to others, though that may be hard to do for those who are isolated. While many people may state that they like being alone, loneliness is really caused by the gap between the social connections you would like to have and the social connections you do have. If this gap continues to grow, you are more likely to have certain health problems. A doctor’s appointment or visit from a home health nurse may result in a Berkman-Syme Social Network Index that measures social isolation or the UCLA Loneliness Scale that measures loneliness. These findings could help identify whether a change needs to be made sooner rather than later in your life.

If you are looking for high-quality social relationships and don’t know where to start, you can talk to your doctor and get in touch with community resources for help. For the elderly, communities such as The National Council of Aging and the National Institute on Aging are good places to start.

If you are not experiencing loneliness but think you may know someone who is, reach out to them regularly. Calling, texting and scheduling video calls are easy ways to stay in touch. If someone new moves into your building or neighborhood, reach out to them and do something neighborly, like leaving them a plate of cookies as a welcome gift. You never know what someone is going through, and little gestures like these could make all the difference.

If you or someone you know is experiencing loneliness and its negative health effects, contact us at Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program for help today.

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