SOCIAL ISOLATION AND ITS IMPACT ON HEALTHThough technology offers a myriad of ways to keep in touch – cell phone, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter – not enough focus is being placed on the concurrent problem of isolation in today’s busy and complex world.

Studies over many years (and in several countries) have proven time and again that infants – when separated from their parents at birth – do not thrive nearly as well as those who are not separated.  Even when placed in orphanages or in the temporary care of strangers, they sense an absence of the loving arms of a parent or parents whose attention and devotion breathes life into the infant’s every waking and sleeping moment.  Left alone in a crib with a bottle propped up to give them their only nourishment, they are isolated from human touch, the very touch of mother-infant bonding necessary for wholesome development.

What has been studied less is the effect of isolation on people of all ages.  During adolescence, for instance, there are the particular consequences experienced when teens struggle as natural hormonal shifts affect their bodies, their brains, and their and sense of self.  It is especially during those years when they need the tender bolstering, reassurance, and care of family members and/or friends that they often make it difficult to give them what they most need, since their behavior often defies logic.  Yet, when adults rise to the occasion and do offer much-needed unconditional support, the rewards are worth the effort.

We witness also the social isolation of those who focus primarily on developing a career, delaying both marriage and/or having children, as well as all those in their senior years, widowed or abandoned by family members and friends.  This isolation proves fertile ground for the growing incidences of depression, anxiety disorders, and a Pandora’s box of other health problems.

Though scientific studies as to why and how social relationships protect health still remain limited, it is important to note that the lack of such relationships does have direct effects upon our health.

One hypothesis is that “social relationships beneficially affect health, not only because of their supportiveness, but also because of the social control that others exercise over a person, especially by encouraging health-promoting behaviors such as adequate sleep, diet, exercise, and compliance with medical regimes or by discouraging health damaging behaviors such as smoking, excessive eating, alcohol consumption or drug abuse.” [Wikepedia: wn.com/social_isolation – October 2010]

In 2007, reference was made to a study conducted at the University of Illinois at the Chicago College of Medicine on “THE EFFECTS OF SOCIAL ISOLATION.”   It traced brain hormones in mice and concluded that “the anxiety and aggression that result from social isolation have been traced to altered levels of an enzyme that controls production of a brain hormone.”

Animal models in a variety of studies since then continue to link human stress due to isolation and its effect upon levels of anxiety, aggression, and memory impairment.

As recently as August 2010, the National Academy of Sciences reported that a study in mice showed that social supports help to minimize the worst physical damages to the brain caused by heart attacks, in particular. According to Greg Norman, the lead author of the study, “the results get at the profound influence that the social environment can have on health after cardiac arrest …” protecting against some of the negative effects on neural regulation of the heart.

And in HEALTH NEWS, 7/27/10, researchers combined the results of 148 studies and estimated that “adults with strong personal relationships may live an average of almost four years longer than those with weaker social ties.”

These issues have been brought home to me during these past few months while recovering from surgery.  I realize more than ever now how isolated life can be, how diminished one’s options are without the ability to move about freely and be active socially.

Just as I have written about the consequences of bullying in its many forms and the need to teach empathy in our attempt to connect with family and friends within our community with the goal of creating a healthier society, I think that perhaps now – during these days of economic uncertainty and political unrest – we need, more than ever, to focus on how best to maintain our physical and mental well-being.

With the availability of online networking communities, people do have many options for reaching out and communicating with others.  Message boards, chat rooms and a variety of social networking meet the needs of those who might otherwise remain without any opportunities at all to develop friendships.

Yet, despite the fact that research needs to continue in this area, it seems clear to most in the scientific community that human interaction and social relationships come with more than just emotional benefits. They influence our longevity and our health and, as concluded in HEALTH NEWS, “It appears that strong relationships have an effect comparable to that of quitting smoking and a greater effect than known risk factors such as obesity and alcohol use … as clearly as they reduce stress and boost the immune system.”

Perhaps that is our greatest challenge: to provide health care facilities dedicated to the prevention of disease as well as the treatment of them, while having as its major goal helping patients to develop broader networks of social support.

If you agree, disagree, or have pertinent information to add, please share your thoughts here on this site.

Best wishes for a healthy week!

Yours,
Linda

1 Comment

  • Levonne says:

    I just watched a PBS special about Emotions and Isolation, among other topics. Some of the points that you mention were mentioned there too. It's a tender balance really – alone time and too much time alone.