Isolation can cut your life short

"From babies to the elderly, psychosocial embedding in interpersonal relationships is critical for survival," says Danilo Bzdok. (Credit: HelenHates Peas/Flickr)

Social isolation can lead to shorter lifespan, researchers report.

Their new paper explores the wide-ranging, negative consequences that social isolation has on our psychological well-being and physical health, including decreased lifespan.

Through examining a broad range of studies, a full picture emerged of the severe impact that loneliness can have:

  • 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’re embedded in a network of friends, for example, the less likely we are to become ill and the higher our rates of survival.

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%.

“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,” says coauthor Danilo Bzdok, associate professor in the biomedical engineering department at McGill University and Canada CIFAR Artificial Intelligence Chair.

“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. 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,” says coauthor Robin Dunbar, emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford. “As one consequence, the United Kingdom has launched the ‘Campaign to End Loneliness’—a network of over 600 national, regional, and local organizations to create the right conditions for reducing loneliness in later life.

“Such efforts speak to the growing public recognition and political will to confront this evolving societal challenge. These concerns can only be exacerbated if there are prolonged periods of social isolation imposed by national policy responses to extraordinary crises such as COVID-19,” Dunbar says.

The research appears in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Source: McGill University