Are isolation and loneliness actually bad for our health? Do they increase the risk of dying?
Short answer: Well, it isn’t good for you. How harmful probably depends on the extent and your age. Risk of dying? That’s a bit more complicated.
This isn’t actually a new question, even if it is a topic of increasing interest lately. Since it isn’t a new question, there’s actually plenty of existing research to look at. There are a few major difficulties to keep in mind:
- Experiments in this area are rare, primarily due to ethical concerns.
- Loneliness is difficult to measure (it doesn’t have a number like blood pressure).
- Determining if something is a cause is surprisingly difficult.
One of the different categories studied is age. Loneliness in children has been studied separately than in adults.
Children: We know isolation is extremely problematic in children. Large studies on this are limited, but there were some early ones done comparing children raised in orphanages to those in prisons, and some subsequent studies isolating baby monkeys. There have been some case studies done of individual children that have been raised in isolation as well. At any rate, it’s a bad thing. It certainly substantially impairs normal social development, and studies suggest cognitive damage as well.
Adults: One very popular study used a biobank in the UK (Follow-up study was easier to find and more recent, so here’s that link). They found a slight excess risk of death (i.e. hazard factor) in the socially isolated, even when they accounted for other factors, such as age. This is somewhat complicated by the question of whether or not being socially isolated happens due to underlying health conditions.
How severe are the effects of loneliness?
While it’s a bit difficult to determine if it increases the likelihood of dying, the health effects are significant. The researcher’s term for loneliness is perceived social isolation (PSI). For adults it comes with a greater risk of depression, inflammation, and cardiovascular disorders. There certainly appears to be a link between loneliness and poor health, but precisely how/why is less clear.
Given the current widespread social experiment taking place, the future should hold many more studies on the topic.
Social experiment? There are some experiments one simply cannot do, for ethical reasons or practical limitations. The current situation of shutdowns, quarantines, and social distancing wouldn’t be practical to implement as an experiment on the scale we’re currently seeing it. But, as it is being implemented, we can certainly expect the data out of it to be studied. After all, it’s not the sort of experiment any scientist could dream of implementing- and, with so many states and countries doing things differently, there’s going to be lots of data to compare. It is, effectively an experiment, and if it is one with more variables and design flaws than a scientist would include, well, no scientist could have done it.