The risks of social isolation (2022)

The risks of social isolation (1)


CE credits: 1

Learning objectives: After reading this article, CE candidates will be able to:

  1. Identify the effects of social isolation and loneliness on physical, mental and cognitive health.
  2. Explore how loneliness differs from social isolation.
  3. Discuss evidence-based interventions for combating loneliness.

For more information on earning CE credit for this article, go to

According to a 2018 national survey by Cigna, loneliness levels have reached an all-time high, with nearly half of 20,000 U.S. adults reporting they sometimes or always feel alone. Forty percent of survey participants also reported they sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they feel isolated.

Such numbers are alarming because of the health and mental health risks associated with loneliness. According to a meta-analysis co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder. She’s also found that loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity (Perspectives on Psychological Science , Vol. 10, No. 2, 2015).

"There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators," Holt-­Lunstad says.

(Video) The UK's wellbeing and the risks of social isolation: Behavioural Phycologist Emma Kenny

In an effort to stem such health risks, campaigns and coalitions to reduce social isolation and loneliness—an individual’s perceived level of social isolation—have been launched in Australia, ­Denmark and the United Kingdom. These national programs bring together research experts, nonprofit and government agencies, community groups and skilled volunteers to raise awareness of loneliness and address social isolation through evidence-based interventions and advocacy.

But is loneliness really increasing, or is it a condition that humans have always experienced at various times of life? In other words, are we becoming lonelier or just more inclined to recognize and talk about the problem?

These are tough questions to answer because historical data about loneliness are scant. Still, some research suggests that social isolation is increasing, so loneliness may be, too, says Holt-Lunstad. The most recent U.S. census data, for example, show that more than a quarter of the population lives alone—the highest rate ever recorded. In addition, more than half of the population is unmarried, and marriage rates and the number of children per household have declined since the previous census. Rates of volunteerism have also decreased,according to research by the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute, and an increasing percentage of Americans report no religious affiliation—suggesting declines in the kinds of religious and other institutional connections that can provide community.

"Regardless of whether loneliness is increasing or remaining stable, we have lots of evidence that a significant portion of the population is affected by it," says Holt-­Lunstad. "Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival."

As experts in behavior change, psychologists are well-positioned to help the nation combat loneliness. Through their research and public policy work, many psychologists have been providing data and detailed recommendations for advancing social connection as a U.S. public health priority on both the societal and individual levels.

"With an increasing aging population, the effects of loneliness on public health are only anticipated to increase," Holt-Lunstad says. "The challenge we face now is figuring out what can be done about it."

Who is most likely?

Loneliness is an experience that has been around since the beginning of time—and we all deal with it, according to Ami Rokach, PhD, an instructor at York University in Canada and a clinical psychologist. "It’s something every single one of us deals with from time to time," he explains, and can occur during life transitions such as the death of a loved one, a divorce or a move to a new place. This kind of loneliness is referred to by researchers as reactive loneliness.

(Video) The Consequences of Social Isolation

Problems can arise, however, when an experience of loneliness becomes chronic, Rokach notes. "If reactive loneliness is painful, chronic loneliness is torturous," he says. Chronic loneliness is most likely to set in when individuals either don’t have the emotional, mental or financial resources to get out and satisfy their social needs or they lack a social circle that can provide these benefits, says psychologist Louise Hawkley, PhD, a senior research scientist at the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.

"That’s when things can become very problematic, and when many of the major negative health consequences of loneliness can set in," she says.

Last year, a Pew Research Center survey of more than 6,000 U.S. adults linked frequent loneliness to dissatisfaction with one’s family, social and community life. About 28 percent of those dissatisfied with their family life feel lonely all or most of the time, compared with just 7 percent of those satisfied with their family life. Satisfaction with one’s social life follows a similar pattern: 26 percent of those dissatisfied with their social lives are frequently lonely, compared with just 5 percent of those who are satisfied with their social lives. One in five Americans who say they are not satisfied with the quality of life in their local communities feel frequent loneliness, roughly triple the 7 percent of Americans who are satisfied with the quality of life in their communities.

And, of course, loneliness can occur when people are surrounded by others—on the subway, in a classroom, or even with their spouses and children, according to Rokach, who adds that loneliness is not synonymous with chosen isolation or solitude. Rather, loneliness is defined by people’s levels of satisfaction with their connectedness, or their perceived social isolation.

The risks of social isolation (2)

Effects of loneliness and isolation

As demonstrated by a review of the effects of perceived social isolation across the life span, co-authored by Hawkley, loneliness can wreak havoc on an individual’s physical, mental and cognitive health (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B , Vol. 370, No. 1669, 2015). Hawkley points to evidence linking perceived social isolation with adverse health consequences including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life. In addition, a 2019 study led by Kassandra Alcaraz, PhD, MPH, a public health researcher with the American Cancer Society, analyzed data from more than 580,000 adults and found that social isolation increases the risk of premature death from every cause for every race (American Journal of Epidemiology , Vol. 188, No. 1, 2019). According to Alcaraz, among black participants, social isolation doubled the risk of early death, while it increased the risk among white participants by 60 to 84 percent.

"Our research really shows that the magnitude of risk presented by social isolation is very similar in magnitude to that of obesity, smoking, lack of access to care and physical inactivity," she says. In the study, investigators weighted several standard measures of social isolation, including marital status, frequency of religious service attendance, club meetings/group activities and number of close friends or relatives. They found that overall, race seemed to be a stronger predictor of social isolation than sex; white men and women were more likely to be in the least isolated category than were black men and women.

(Video) What Social Isolation Does To Your Brain – How To Undo The Damage

The American Cancer Society study is the largest to date on all races and genders, but previous research has provided glimpses into the harmful effects of social isolation and loneliness. A 2016 study led by Newcastle University epidemiologist Nicole Valtorta, PhD, for example, linked loneliness to a 30 percent increase in risk of stroke or the development of coronary heart disease (Heart , Vol. 102, No. 13). Valtorta notes that a lonely individual’s higher risk of ill health likely stems from several combined factors: behavioral, biological and psychological.

"Lacking encouragement from family or friends, those who are lonely may slide into unhealthy habits," Valtorta says. "In addition, loneliness has been found to raise levels of stress, impede sleep and, in turn, harm the body. Loneliness can also augment depression or anxiety."

Last year, researchers at the Florida State University College of Medicine also found that loneliness is associated with a 40percent increase in a person’s risk of dementia (The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, online 2018). Led by Angelina Sutin, PhD, the study examined data on more than 12,000 U.S. adults ages 50 years and older. Participants rated their levels of loneliness and social isolation and completed a cognitive battery every two years for up to 10 years.

Among older adults in particular, loneliness is more likely to set in when an individual is dealing with functional limitations and has low family support, Hawkley says. Better self-rated health, more social interaction and less family strain reduce older adults’ feelings of loneliness, according to a study, led by Hawkley, examining data from more than 2,200 older adults (Research on Aging , Vol. 40, No. 4, 2018). "Even among those who started out lonely, those who were in better health and socialized with others more often had much better odds of subsequently recovering from their loneliness," she says.

A 2015 study led by Steven Cole, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, provides additional clues as to why loneliness can harm overall health (PNAS , Vol. 112, No. 49, 2015). He and his colleagues examined gene expressions in leukocytes, white blood cells that play key roles in the immune system’s response to infection. They found that the leukocytes of lonely participants—both humans and rhesus macaques—showed an increased expression of genes involved in inflammation and a decreased expression of genes involved in antiviral responses.

Loneliness, it seems, can lead to long-term "fight-or-flight" stress signaling, which negatively affects immune system functioning. Simply put, people who feel lonely have less immunity and more inflammation than people who don’t.

The risks of social isolation (3)

(Video) Locked Inside - The Neuroscience of Social Isolation

Combating loneliness

While the harmful effects of loneliness are well established in the research literature, finding solutions to curb chronic loneliness has proven more challenging, says Holt-Lunstad.

Developing effective interventions is not a simple task because there’s no single underlying cause of loneliness, she says. "Different people may be lonely for different reasons, and so a one-size-fits-all kind of intervention is not likely to work because you need something that is going to address the underlying cause." Rokach notes that efforts to minimize loneliness can start at home, with teaching children that aloneness does not mean loneliness. Also, he says, schools can help foster environments in which children look for, identify and intervene when a peer seems lonely or disconnected from others.

In terms of additional ways to address social isolation and feelings of loneliness, research led by Christopher Masi, MD, and a team of researchers at the University of Chicago suggests that interventions that focus inward and address the negative thoughts underlying loneliness in the first place seem to help combat loneliness more than those designed to improve social skills, enhance social support or increase opportunities for social interaction (Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, 2011). The meta-analysis reviewed 20 randomized trials of interventions to decrease loneliness in children, adolescents and adults and showed that addressing what the researchers termed maladaptive social cognition through cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) worked best because it empowered patients to recognize and deal with their negative thoughts about self-worth and how others perceive them, says Hawkley, one of the study’s co-authors.

Still, some research has found that engaging older adults in community and social groups can lead to positive mental health effects and reduce feelings of loneliness. Last year, Julene Johnson, PhD, a University of California, San Francisco researcher on aging, examined how joining a choir might combat feelings of loneliness among older adults (The Journals of Gerontology: Series B , online 2018). Half of the study’s 12 senior centers were randomly selected for the choir program, which involved weekly 90-minute choir sessions, including informal public performances. The other half of the centers did not participate in choir sessions. After six months, the researchers found no significant differences between the two groups on tests of cognitive function, lower body strength and overall psychosocial health. But they did find significant improvements in two components of the psychosocial evaluation among choir participants: This group reported feeling less lonely and indicated they had more interest in life. Seniors in the non-choir group saw no change in their loneliness, and their interest in life declined slightly.

Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia have also found that older adults who take part in social groups such as book clubs or church groups have a lower risk of death (BMJ Open , Vol. 6, No. 2, 2016). Led by psychologist Niklas Steffens, PhD, the team tracked the health of 424 people for six years after they had retired and found that social group membership had a compounding effect on quality of life and risk of death. Compared with those still working, every group membership lost after retirement was associated with around a 10 percent drop in quality of life six years later. In addition, if participants belonged to two groups before retirement and kept these up over the following six years, their risk of death was 2 percent, rising to 5 percent if they gave up membership in one group and to 12 percent if they gave up membership in both.

"In this regard, practical interventions need to focus on helping retirees to maintain their sense of purpose and belonging by assisting them to connect to groups and communities that are meaningful to them," the authors say.

To that end, cohousing appears to be growing in popularity among young and old around the world as a way to improve social connections and decrease loneliness, among other benefits. Cohousing communities and mixed-age residences are intentionally built to bring older and younger generations together, either in whole neighborhoods within single-family homes or in larger apartment buildings, where they share dining, laundry and recreational spaces. Neighbors gather for parties, games, movies or other events, and the co­housing piece makes it easy to form clubs, organize child and elder care, and carpool. Hawkley and other psychologists argue that these living situations may also provide an antidote to loneliness, particularly among older adults. Although formal evaluations of their effectiveness in reducing loneliness remain scarce, cohousing communities in the United States now number 165 nationwide, according to the Cohousing Association, with another 140 in the planning stages.

(Video) Jordan Peterson | Social Isolation Leads to Insanity and Then Death

"Older adults have become so marginalized and made to feel as though they are no longer productive members of society, which is lonely-making in and of itself," Hawkley says. "For society to be healthy, we have to find ways to include all segments of the population, and many of these intergenerational housing programs seem to be doing a lot in terms of dispelling myths about old age and helping older individuals feel like they are important and valued members of society again."


What are the risks of social isolation? ›

Recent studies found that: Social isolation significantly increased a person's risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.

How does social isolation affect you socially? ›

Social isolation can involve emotional isolation, which is an unwillingness or inability to share one's feelings with others. When socially isolated individuals lack emotional interaction and support, they can become emotionally numb — detached from their own feelings.

What is an example of social isolation? ›

All types of social isolation can include staying home for lengthy periods of time, having no communication with family, acquaintances or friends, and/or willfully avoiding any contact with other humans when those opportunities do arise.

Why do people socially isolate? ›

Those who find themselves unexpectedly isolated due to the illness of a loved one, separation from friends or family, loss of mobility, worsening vision or hearing problems, disability, or lack of mobility or access to transportation, are at particular risk of loneliness and social isolation.

What will happen when people live in isolation? ›

1669, 2015). Hawkley points to evidence linking perceived social isolation with adverse health consequences including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life.

How does social isolation affect your development? ›

Social isolation leads to higher levels of cortisol and worse cognitive development. Therefore, the mental and physical health of children and adolescents need a careful follow up by health professionals during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

How does social media cause isolation? ›

However, social media usage may also have negative impacts on social isolation by substituting social media usage for face-to-face social interactions, or by exposing individuals to unrealistic or distorted portrayals of connections' lives, leading to feelings of social isolation.

What does social isolation feel like? ›

Chronic loneliness occurs when feelings of loneliness and uncomfortable social isolation go on for a long period of time. It's characterized by constant and unrelenting feelings of being alone, separated or divided from others, and an inability to connect on a deeper level.

How can social isolation affect mental health? ›

Social isolation is associated with an increased risk of mental health problems like anxiety and depression – and mental health issues can also increase your chances of feeling lonely. There's even evidence that social isolation can shorten life span.

What is the meaning of social isolation? ›

DEFINITION. Social isolation can be defined structurally as the absence of social interactions, contacts, and relationships with family and friends, with neighbors on an individual level, and with “society at large” on a broader level.

How do you isolate yourself from everyone? ›

If you want to truly be removed from society, stop following what happens. Avoid speaking or communicating to anyone at all. Keep communication with others to the barest minimum. This involves any kind of social exchange, including speaking, email, texting or sign language.

Why do I isolate myself? ›

Reasons People Self-Isolate

being embarrassed” “not feeling understood, or feeling different or disconnected from others” “feelings of worthlessness, self-doubt, and helplessness” “prominent fear and anxiety (phobia) or stress”

How does isolation affect a country? ›

Effective economic isolation induces or exacerbates shortages of critical resources. When those shortages have a direct impact, economically isolated states experience a reduction in the resources that can be put toward their war effort.

Is social isolation common? ›

Social isolation and loneliness are widespread, with some countries reporting that up to one in three older people feel lonely.

How do you describe isolation? ›

Isolation is the experience of being separated from others. It may result from being physically separated from others, such as when a person lives in a remote area. Isolation can also result from being emotionally removed from a community.

What happens when you don't socialize? ›

It can lead to a toxic combination of low self-esteem, hostility, stress, pessimism and social anxiety – ultimately culminating in the isolated person distancing themselves from others even further.

What happens to a human when they spend too much time alone? ›

Loneliness raises levels of stress hormones and blood pressure. It undermines regulation of the circulatory system so that the heart muscle works harder and the blood vessels are subject to damage by blood flow turbulence.

How does social isolation affect the brain? ›

Socially isolated people have an increased risk of cognitive decline such as impaired concentration, memory loss, dementia, and loss of social capacities. They also suffer adverse emotional consequences such as depression, stress, and anxiety. They also feel sick more often and have a shorter lifespan.

How does isolation affect speech? ›

Exacerbation of isolation

Communication impairments make it more difficult to interact within communities, limit the number of communication partners, and decrease opportunities for positive communication.

What are Negative Impact of social media? ›

Social media harms

However, social media use can also negatively affect teens, distracting them, disrupting their sleep, and exposing them to bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people's lives and peer pressure. The risks might be related to how much social media teens use.

How do social media affect you socially? ›

The negative aspects of social media

However, multiple studies have found a strong link between heavy social media and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts. Social media may promote negative experiences such as: Inadequacy about your life or appearance.

Does technology cause social isolation? ›

Social media engagement can help teens connect with peers, family, and classmates; and is enjoyed for entertainment and research. However, an unbalanced use of technology can contribute to isolation, depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, and increased mortality rates.

How do you know if you are isolating yourself? ›

The AARP Foundation lists four signs that a person may be isolated:
  1. Deep boredom, general lack of interest and withdrawal.
  2. Losing interest in personal hygiene.
  3. Poor eating and nutrition.
  4. Significant disrepair, clutter and hoarding in the house.
9 Feb 2021

What is the effect of social isolation on children? ›

Conclusions: The review shows a strong association between social isolation and anxiety and depression in children and adolescents. Social isolation leads to higher levels of cortisol and worse cognitive development.

Is social isolation good? ›

Research suggests that social isolation and loneliness increase the risk of heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression, Alzheimer's disease, high blood pressure, and even early death.

Can people live in isolation? ›

Reconnecting with other humans can reduce loneliness and help restore us to good mental and physical health. However, some people who have been held in social isolation against their will may develop long-term mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How do you overcome social withdrawal? ›

"Social withdrawal amplifies the brain's stress response. Social contact helps put the brakes on it." The Fix: Gradually counteract social withdrawal by reaching out to your friends and family. Make a list of the people in your life you want to reconnect with and start by scheduling an activity.

Is loneliness a social issue? ›

In some nations at least, loneliness has been identified as a growing social problem. Last week, for example, the UK government appointed Tracey Crouch as minister for loneliness.

What is the difference between social isolation and loneliness? ›

It refers to the perceived quality of the person's relationships. Loneliness is never desired and lessening these feelings can take a long time. Social isolation is an objective measure of the number of contacts that people have. It is about the quantity and not quality of relationships.

What happens when you don't socialize? ›

It can lead to a toxic combination of low self-esteem, hostility, stress, pessimism and social anxiety – ultimately culminating in the isolated person distancing themselves from others even further.

What are the psychological effects of isolation? ›

Impact of Social Isolation on Your Mental Health

If you experience loneliness as a pre-teen or teenager, for example, you're more likely to struggle with depression in adulthood. Older adults are vulnerable emotionally and cognitively. Social isolation can cause up to a 40% increase in dementia risk.

What does God say about isolation? ›

Proverbs 18:1 – A man who isolates himself seeks his own desires; he rages against all wise judgment. Some people live alone because friends and families have abandoned them. Psalm 27:10 is for them.

What happens when you are isolated for a long time? ›

Loneliness can be damaging to both our mental and physical health. Socially isolated people are less able to deal with stressful situations. They're also more likely to feel depressed and may have problems processing information. This in turn can lead to difficulties with decision-making and memory storage and recall.

What are the symptoms of social isolation? ›

They could be signs of social isolation.
  • Depression and anxiety. People often experience depression and anxiety because of their isolation — or experience social isolation in depression or anxiety. ...
  • Aggressive behavior. ...
  • Lethargy. ...
  • Insomnia or light sleep. ...
  • Memory loss. ...
  • Poor self-care.
24 May 2022

Is it important to be social? ›

Socializing not only staves off feelings of loneliness, but also it helps sharpen memory and cognitive skills, increases your sense of happiness and well-being, and may even help you live longer. In-person is best, but connecting via technology also works.

How do you socialize with people? ›

  1. Initiate interactions with friends and family. Call friends or family members and talk or chat, or invite them to spend time with you. ...
  2. Introduce yourself to neighbors and other people you come into contact with frequently. Say hello when someone walks by and ask how they are doing.
  3. Join groups. ...
  4. Advertise yourself.

How much social interaction do we need? ›

New research on well-being conducted by bestselling authors Tom Rath and Jim Harter, PhD, reveals that a robust sense of well-being requires six hours a day of social interaction. Well-being is the sense of contentment and happiness one feels about life, and it makes a difference.

How do people react to isolation? ›

Loneliness is associated with feelings of emptiness, sadness, and shame, alongside the subjective perception that one is disconnected from others. It not only can occur in the context of social isolation but can also persist beyond this and can be experienced even when others are physically present.

How does social isolation affect the brain? ›

Socially isolated people have an increased risk of cognitive decline such as impaired concentration, memory loss, dementia, and loss of social capacities. They also suffer adverse emotional consequences such as depression, stress, and anxiety. They also feel sick more often and have a shorter lifespan.

Who in the Bible was in isolation? ›

I Kings 16:29-18:1 tells the story of Elijah when he follows God's command to withdraw into isolation to keep himself safe. Later, Elijah joins the household of a widow and her son. Together they live in isolation, overcoming challenges of poverty and illness.

Is being alone lonely? ›

One common description of loneliness is the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships is not met. But loneliness is not always the same as being alone. You may choose to be alone and live happily without much contact with other people, while others may find this a lonely experience.

How do Christians deal with loneliness? ›

Praying, journaling, reading Scripture and even sitting in silence with God can help you refocus on Him and depend more on Him. Having a strong connection with God enables you to cope better with feelings of loneliness by focusing your attention away from yourself and onto God.


1. LONELINESS: The Danger of Social Isolation | Dr. K Interviews
2. Social isolation can raise child-abuse risk
(UF Health)
3. The risks of social isolation || Kelly Accetta
(Kelly Accetta)
4. Coronavirus Outbreak Answers: What are the health risks of social isolation for seniors? | COVID-19
5. How Dangerous Is Loneliness, Really?
(SciShow Psych)
6. Combating the mental health effects of social isolation
(European College of Neuropsychopharmacology)

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