Social distancing may kill you

June 21, 2020

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Social distancing may kill you

Never before have we experienced social isolation on a massive scale as we have during the evolving COVID-19 pandemic. A new paper published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences explores the wide-ranging, negative consequences that social isolation has on our psychological well-being and physical health, including decreased life span.

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.

As prior research has shown, 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 lower systolic blood pressure, lower body mass index, and lower levels of C-reactive protein (another molecular response to inflammation). In other words, they’re healthier.

Humans are intensely social and benefit psychologically and physically from social interaction. The tighter we are 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%.

What the researchers say: “We are social creatures,” said the lead author. “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. 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.”

The co-lead author, professor Robin Dunbar of Oxford University (he of the famous Dunbar Number) commented: “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. 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.”

So, what? There’s nothing particularly new in this research. We’ve been aware of the problems of loneliness for some time.

However, the forces in our society that have been driving increasing isolation are becoming harder and harder to stop. They include:

  • The depersonalization of work
  • The mechanization of services
  • The gig economy and part-time work
  • Increasing mental illness—especially mood disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD
  • Increasing apartment living
  • The destruction of neighborhoods
  • The neglect of the elderly
  • Modern office design—especially hot desking and open-plan
  • Increasing alcoholism and drug addiction
  • The destruction of the natural environment (and thus spaces for people to exercise/explore together)
  • Frequent pandemics
  • The reduction of play-time at school
  • Increasing use of social media—as opposed to having “real” friendships

Only when we have solutions to all of these will we be able to solve the problem of societal loneliness.

I’m not holding my breath.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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