Social isolation and loneliness
Social connection is important for our physical and mental well-being. It helps prevent feelings of isolation, which may cause things like anxiety, depression, cognitive decline and unhealthy lifestyle habits.
When we think about staying healthy, making sure you have social support may easily get lost on our list of to-do’s. But while taking care of your health includes the things you might think about — like eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly — and also it also includes taking time to be with friends and family.
Who is most affected by social isolation?
While loneliness may impact anyone at some point in their life, certain groups of people may be at greater risk of spending too much of their time solo. That means they may not get much social interaction for one reason or another. It’s important to recognize people commonly affected by loneliness so you can identify them in your own life. Then maybe consider extending an invite to your next social gathering. Here’s who may benefit:1
Older adults: Older adults and seniors have an increased risk of loneliness because they may experience more things that keep them home. That includes things like mourning the loss of a loved one, managing a chronic illness or living with hearing loss that keeps them out of conversations. Plus, they are more likely to live alone.
People new to an area: Anyone new to any area may not have strong social ties to their neighborhood or local community.
People in specific groups (such as immigrants, people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersexed (LGBTQ+); people with disabilities): When people are in specific groups, they may feel like they don’t fit in with their peers, which could keep them home by themselves. For immigrants, it may be harder to meet new people and form friend groups, especially if there’s a language barrier.
What are the health risks of loneliness?
There are also very real physical and mental health side effects that may come with too much alone time. Here are a few:2
- Increased stress
- Hindered sleep
- Decreased sense of purpose
- Depression and anxiety
- Increased inflammation
- Poor immune system (less immunity)
- For adults 50 and older, recent studies found that social isolation was associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia, and an overall increase in depression, anxiety and suicide.3
What are tips to help with loneliness?
The best medicine when you’re feeling alone might simply be the company of a loved one. That could be quality time in person, over the phone or through a video chat. Not only is it important to make new friends if your social circle is lacking, it’s also just as important to nurture your relationships and keep those connections strong. Having trouble meeting new people as an adult? Try joining a local gym, book club, place of worship or volunteer group.
Some people may prefer having the company of an animal friend. If that sounds like you, maybe you want to consider getting a pet. Pets can give you a sense of purpose and help you stay in a healthy routine. There’s even research that supports the idea that pets may help to decrease stress, blood pressure and loneliness. Plus, furry, fuzzy or feathered friends (even fish) can help boost feelings of social support and positive mood.4
Mindfulness is simply the action of taking time to be aware of your thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness activities and meditation techniques, like breathing work and kindness exercises, may help impact optimism and quality of life. These 2 factors may help reduce loneliness. Here’s how to make mindfulness a part of your day: 5
- Sit quietly for 5 to 10 minutes and focus on your breathing. Noticing how your mind and body feel in the present moment helps you focus and prioritize your day with a positive mindset.
- Before you go to sleep, reflect on the good things that happened that day. Write them down and practice gratitude for everything that went well, even on not-so-great days.
- Download a mindfulness app. This type of app may help guide you through meditation and mindfulness exercises — and show you how to make these a regular part of your routine.
You don’t have to spend lots of money on spa days or vacations to practice self-care. Small, simple things may make a big difference in your health. Maybe you take a personal day off work to mentally reset or take an extra-long lunch break at your favorite restaurant. Or maybe you can consider clearing your Sunday schedule to read, take a walk outdoors or practice positive self-talk before you start your day.
Where can I find more resources on social isolation and loneliness?
This educational resource has more information on social isolation and loneliness and tips for staying connected. If you are feeling isolated or lonely a lot of the time, you may want to visit your primary care provider and share your concerns. Talking with a doctor about how you feel physically, emotionally and mentally may help them make recommendations that could be helpful to you.