Prolonged social isolation and loneliness can lead to poor physical and mental health—problems that made headlines during the pandemic.
Unfortunately, social isolation (the absence of social contact that results in loneliness) and loneliness (a psychological mechanism that motivates people to seek relationships with others), goes on every day of the year for some people.
Older adults are particularly vulnerable. They may be forced to isolate due to a lack of transportation, mobility problems, compromised immune systems or mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
“Not everyone who experiences solitude feels lonely,” said Chris Petrik, RN, BS, during a recent webinar about the impact of social isolation on the brain. “A lot of people are comfortable with themselves and don’t experience loneliness. If they feel they need connections, they seek them.”
What about those who don’t and continue to isolate for prolonged periods of time? It turns out that isolation causes portions of their brain to shrink in volume. As a result, these older adults battle problems with attention span, concentration, impulse control, planning and understanding the consequences of their actions, explained Petrik, who serves as director of education at Elderwerks Educational Services.
Remaining isolated for long periods of time can also cause:
- Depressive disorders – If these are left untreated, they increase the risk of suicide.
- Memory loss – Isolation expedites dementia and cognitive decline.
- Sleep changes – Restless sleep and insomnia often results in fatigue, irritability, mood swings and trouble concentrating.
- Drug or alcohol use – An increase can lead to addiction.
- Inflammation in the body – This is equivalent to smoking three-fourths of a pack of cigarettes a day, which decreases the immune system and increases the risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease.
- Excessive release of cortisol – Also known as the fight-or-flight stress hormone, excess cortisol is often caused by anxiety or uncertainty about safety due to being alone. Cortisol worsens chronic health problems, adds more body fat to the waistline and puts older adults at about a 32% increased risk of stroke.
“Loneliness can exist without isolation and social isolation can lead to loneliness,” Petrik explained, noting you can feel alone even in a room full of people—especially if you don’t know anyone and everyone is talking to someone except you.
Naturally, social isolation can lead to loneliness. In the movie “Cast Away,” actor Tom Hanks demonstrated the innate need human beings have to make social connections when his character named his volleyball “Wilson” and the toll prolonged isolation can take on the brain when psychosis sets in.
Remedies to combat social isolation’s impact on the brain
We can change the part of our brain affected by isolation-generated depression, emotional issues and memory loss, Petrik said, just by thinking of things we’re grateful for.
“An attitude of gratitude, expressing appreciation and being more thankful will measurably improve your overall well-being,” she explained. “Gratitude increases happiness, reduces depression, strengthens resiliency, lowers blood pressure and results in increased energy and longer lives.”
With regular practice of creating feelings of happiness and contentment, you can train your brain to deflect negative thoughts, she said. Here are some ways to do it:
- Celebrate minor accomplishments.
- Think about what you have rather than dwelling on what you don’t.
- Kindness or giving is associated with gratitude. Tell someone something you appreciate about them. Volunteer in the community. Hold the door for someone.
- Keep a daily gratitude journal.
- Ponder grateful thoughts before bedtime. Gratitude rewires our brains. You’ll sleep better.
When talking to people who are lonely or feel isolated, introduce a conversation about gratitude and discuss ways they can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Encourage them to:
- Pursue a hobby or take up a new one.
- Participate in activities at the local senior center.
- Telephone friends.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise releases endorphins, those “feel good” chemicals in the brain.
- Spend time in nature. It reduces stress.
- Seek help from a therapist.
The more older adults do to quell loneliness and isolation, the better they’ll start to feel mentally and physically. Caregivers can help by paying attention to the warning signs. One conversation might inspire a phone call to an old friend or visit with a neighbor—activities that foster social connection and help end isolation.