Is isolation affecting your health?

October 11, 2022 in Healthy Living  •  By Miles Varn, MD

Even before the pandemic, isolation and loneliness were growing problems that contributed to a range mental and physical health issues. Then the pandemic struck and people around the world were encouraged to separate themselves from others to slow the spread of COVID and protect their health, raising reported levels of loneliness even higher.

While many people are returning to their pre-pandemic social lives, some remain isolated, especially people who are immunocompromised or have family who are immunocompromised, people living with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, and older people.

This isolation, no matter why the person is isolated, can have serious negative health effects. Researchers have found a correlation between social isolation and several health issues, including:

  • 29% increase in the risk of heart disease
  • 32% increase in stroke risk
  • 50% increase in dementia risk and an increased risk of cognitive decline
  • Higher risk of depression and anxiety, especially for older people
  • 40% higher risk of developing diabetes
  • Increased risk of becoming frail and unable to do common activities of daily living in older people
  • Increase in unhealthy behaviors, including alcohol, substance, and tobacco use, poor diet, and lack of physical activity
  • Overall drop in quality of life, especially for older people
  • Higher risk of premature death, especially for men

Assess your isolation risk

If you’re not sure whether you or someone you care about is at an increased risk of social isolation and the negative effects it can cause, ask these questions:

  • Do you take part in social activities, either informal activities like meeting a friend for coffee or an organized gathering like a book club or volunteer group, at least once a week? Virtual interactions count as a “yes.”
  • Do you see or talk with a family member or friend at least once a week?
  • Are you a caregiver for an older family member or friend?
  • Do you need help to leave home?
  • Do you avoid social situations because of a hearing problem?
  • Have you experienced a major life change in the last six months, like a move, a death, or a divorce?

How to reduce isolation and protect your health

There are several proactive steps you can take to reduce your risk of isolation and its negative impact on your health. These strategies are also helpful if you or a family member or friend are already experiencing the effects of being isolated.

  • Take care of your health and wellbeing. The first step is to build a plan that helps you make healthy lifestyle behaviors an integral part of your life. Eat a healthy diet, take part in regular physical activity, get enough good quality sleep each night, and take steps to manage stress. All these healthy choices can lower the risk of developing the physical and mental health issues associated with isolation.
  • Make a plan to get and stay connected. A lot of things can get in the way of social connections. Maybe you’re busy with family and work commitments. Maybe you’re feeling depressed or anxious and don’t have the energy to socialize. Or maybe your health means you’re not able to get together with others in person. It can be helpful to put connecting with others on your to-do list and plan to do something social at least once a week. Try a regular call or video chat with a close friend or family member, a walk and chat with a friend, or make a weekly date to play cards, knit, golf, or take part in a shared hobby or activity. Add your get togethers to your calendar to encourage you to go through with your plans.
  • Ask for help. If you’re feeling isolated or notice changes in your physical, cognitive, or mental health, talk with your primary care provider. Your provider can not only check for and recommend treatment for any issues, she or he can also refer you to specialists as needed. It can also be helpful to confide in a friend or family member you trust and who can offer support and encouragement.




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