We’re learning more about how social isolation damages your brain and body — here are the biggest effects

lundi juin 04 2018

Going without human contact for too long can literally break your heart.

That’s according to a new study of social isolation published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in May, which tracked more than 1,600 people living with heart failure.

We’ve known for a while that being alone is a deadly dangerous condition. Other scholars have estimated that regardless of your heart health, social isolation can increase risk of death anywhere from 50-90%. Being socially disconnected can also up your risk of developing high blood pressure or inflammation, and make people more aggressive.

But for the new study, researchers looked at a group of patients from rural parts of Minnesota, all dealing with heart failure. They found that those Minnesotans who described their lives as highly socially isolated, seeing virtually no one else on a daily basis, were three and a half times more likely to die than people who were suffering from some of the exact same heart problems, but who reported having enough social support and connections to others.

People who didn’t have any regular human contact were also more likely to be hospitalized, made more frequent visits to their doctors, and were more likely to be rushed to the emergency room than their peers.

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“It’s becoming increasingly clear that socially isolated people face serious health risks,” NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who was not affiliated with the new study, told Business Insider.

“We need to take their situation seriously,” he said, though he cautioned there’s no evidence yet that the sheer volume of socially isolated people in the US is going up.

“Americans are just about as isolated as we’ve always been,” he said.

His own research suggests that in the US, elderly people and adult men are the two most at-risk populations for social isolation, in part, because they tend to have smaller social networks to begin with.

In addition to being more at-risk physically, there’s also budding evidence that socially isolated people are changing their brain chemistry in dangerous ways. One recent study in mice found that just two weeks of “social isolation stress” caused negative behavioral changes and shifts in their brain chemistry. The finding hasn’t been replicated in humans yet, but it made the mouse-studying scientists wonder if they might be able to some day use drugs to help human patients cope with the mental aspects of social isolation, and decrease their isolation-fueled aggression chemically.

Loneliness is not the same as social isolation, but it’s dangerous too
crowded subway trainGetty Images / Carsten Koall

Being alone (social isolation)and feeling alone (loneliness) are not the same issue. Besides, generally speaking, people who live alone, whether they be 20 years old or 80, tend to have more social connections with others, not less, as Klinenberg has reported in the past. Loneliness isn’t about how physically close we are to other people, and a person can be surrounded by others, and still feel completely alone in the world; that’s loneliness at work. Like social isolation, long-term feelings of this emotional going-it-alone can make people more likely to die an early death, and research suggests the risks are on par with smoking.

The rural Minnesotan study also measured some aspects of loneliness in socially isolated heart failure patients, by asking them how often they identified with statements like “I feel left out,” and “I feel that people are around me, but not with me.”

Coping with loneliness and social isolation

Klinenberg says it’s important to remember that not all these feelings of loneliness are necessarily bad. Unlike a chemically-disturbed state of social isolation, or a debilitating loneliness that can last for weeks on end, a short bout of temporary loneliness won’t kill you. In fact, he says it “can be a productive and healthy thing.”

“It’s your body’s signal that you need to get off  your couch and get into the world and try to build better, more meaningful social ties,” he said.

That’s isolation-busting advice more scientists are getting behind.

In May a group of German researchers revealed that connecting more with others can boost how people rate their own satisfaction with life. In a study, people who spent a year making a renewed effort to help others, or spent more time with friends and family, were the only participants who measurably increased how they rated their own life satisfaction.

Other participants who focused on more self-centered life-improvement hacks, like quitting their own bad habits, showed no major change in how happy they rated their lives after a year, suggesting that adding in more time with others might be a kind of secret sauce for improving happiness.

To break out of social isolation, you have to be healthy enough to get out more in the first place — a tricky paradox for patients dealing with conditions like heart failure. Researchers in the new study suggest doctors can also be first responders in the fight against social isolation, looking for tell-tale signs by reaching out and asking a few simple questions of patients when they visit.