We are all in a unique time with the spread of Covid-19. Individuals around the world are being asked to stay indoors and socially isolate from one another. While this strategy has been effective in slowing the spread of the virus and keeping people safe, there are growing concerns on what effect social isolation may have on our health and well-being including cognitive health. A recent article published in Stat News, a news website focused on health and medicine, puts many of these concerns in perspective.
Loneliness and social isolation are associated with several negative health conditions. In a previous Cognitive Vitality blog post, we discussed a meta-analysis – an analysis that combines data from several studies – of eight observational studies with 33,555 elderly individuals that examined the relationship between loneliness and the risk of dementia. The researchers found that loneliness was associated with a 26% increased risk of dementia . Another meta-analysis from 2015 reported that loneliness and social isolation increased the risk of mortality by 26% and 29%, respectively . Loneliness is also associated with other chronic conditions such as coronary heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure . In fact, one study even found that college students who were more sociable were less susceptible to the common cold .
What should we make of this information at a time when we are told to stay home and socially isolate?
To answer this question, let’s define what loneliness is. Loneliness is the perception that our social and emotional relationships are not as strong as our desired social and emotional relationships. Social isolation is an objective measure meaning that an individual has few social contacts. Neither is necessarily the same as our current situation, where we are asked to temporarily isolate ourselves from one another. Although we are asked to stay at home, we can stay connected with family and friends through video conferencing, phone calls, and emails without necessarily feeling lonely. An important point brought up in the Stat News article is from Jonathan Kanter, director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington. He says, “a key dimension of loneliness is feeling that way in contrast to a larger group.” There is not much research on what happens when an entire community self-isolates at a time like this, when everybody is in it together.
Another important point to remember is that most of these studies are observational. This means that a researcher assesses how lonely an individual is at one point in time and then assesses health outcomes several years later. That is, these studies are usually looking at chronic loneliness, rather than the isolation all of us are experiencing now. As the Stat News article says, “the research also isn’t clear on what the timeline of loneliness looks like – how soon it sets in, how it comes and goes, or at what point mental or physical effects start to take a toll.” Is it three months? Six months? One year? We don’t yet know the answer.
Given the risk of Covid-19 infection, especially in the elderly, it is important to remain at home, even if that means we do not physically see family or friends for a while. However, that does not mean we have to be completely disconnected. Video conferencing with friends and family through platforms such as Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime is free. In addition, many social activities, such as Meetup groups, are now going online. You can talk to other people with similar interests without leaving your home. Time spent at home is also an opportunity to read the books on your shelves or catch up on shows or movies you have missed. Learning new things to stimulate your brain and staying socially connected are two of the seven steps we recommend for brain health. If you are feeling lonely, there are national, and sometimes local, resources where you can talk to professionals that can help you. These times are stressful for everyone, but they will eventually pass. Then we will all have plenty of good stories to share with our family and friends.
Nick McKeehan is a member of the ADDF's Aging and Alzheimer's Prevention program. He evaluates the scientific evidence for and against therapies to promote brain health and/or prevent Alzheimer's disease at our website CognitiveVitality.org and contributes regularly to the site's blog.
Mr. McKeehan previously served as Chief Intern at Mid Atlantic Bio Angels (MABA) and was a research technician at Albert Einstein College of Medicine investigating repair capabilities of the brain. Mr. McKeehan received a bachelor of science degree in biology from Purdue University, where he was awarded a Howard Hughes Scholarship. He also writes about the biotechnology industry for 1st Pitch Life Science.
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