According to the WHO, social support networks can have a significant positive effect on health. In fact, many countries are now treating loneliness as a health priority.Social connection is crucial for both mental and physical health. Some researchers even believe that relationships are a biological need and vital to our well-being and survival.
Some of the mental health risks associated with loneliness and isolation may include:
- Alzheimer’s disease
Researchers have also identified links between loneliness and some physical conditions, such as heart disease and breast cancer.
Who is at risk?
The world is currently dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and health organizations around the globe are urging people to practice physical distancing.
Physical distancing is an effective method for preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, but it may lead to loneliness.
Older adults are especially likely to feel isolated. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers estimated that isolation affected more than 8 million older adults.
One of the reasons that older adults are more at risk of loneliness is that they often experience important life changes, such as:
- children leaving home
- age-related health problems
These changes can break social ties, making it more difficult to socialize. People with disabilities or health conditions that limit physical activity may also find it more difficult to socialize outside the home.
Age and underlying health conditions are also risk factors for developing severe COVID-19 symptoms. The best way to protect vulnerable people is to practice physical distancing, but this can also exacerbate loneliness in people who already feel isolated.
The rate of loneliness in the United States is also increasing. Some experts suggest that a growing number of people in the U.S. experience isolation regularly. Other nations — including Germany, Australia, and the United Kingdom — say that they are facing a loneliness epidemic.
Some societal trends may also cause social disconnection. For example, the average household size has decreased, and many more couples are deciding not to have children.
Researchers have also recorded lower attendance in social groups, lower participation in religious groups, and a decline in the average size of social groups in the U.S.
Other lifestyle factors that make it more likely that someone will experience loneliness include:
- living alone
- being single
Signs and Symptoms to look out for
Some signs and symptoms that suggest that isolation is affecting a person’s mental health may include:
- feelings of depression and anxiety
- aggressive behavior
- passive attitude
- poor sleep quality
- cognitive declinealtered memory
- poor self-care or self-neglect
Researchers believe that the consequences of loneliness and isolation are different depending on a person’s age.
For example, people aged 18–49 years old may struggle to focus, or they may eat more frequently. Meanwhile, children and young adolescents may experience more cognitive, behavioral, and emotional difficulties.
How to stay connected
Finding ways to connect with others can reduce the effect of loneliness on people’s mental health as they shelter in place.
Reaching out to loved ones, friends, and those in need takes many forms today. With multiple platforms to choose from, people can connect via:
- phone and text
- social media
- video chat platforms
Reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., CRNP