Social isolation is now increasingly recognised as a risk factor for premature death, like the time when obesity was recognised as a risk factor for premature death decades ago.
This week Dr Ferghal and I explore some of the health implications of social isolation. 1 in 3 Australians have experienced loneliness at some stage in their lives and it is rather alarming to know that prolonged loneliness has detrimental effects on our health.
Prolonged loneliness happens when we don't have the ability to fulfill the need for social contact may it be due to emotional, mental, physical or financial factors.
The Brigham study found that social isolation may be as risky as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder!
This was a meta-analysis study where data from the previous years were studied and an association between loneliness and risk of premature death was established.
We know that loneliness is associated with the following: • 50% increased risk of dementia • 29% increased risk of heart disease • 32% increased risk of stroke • 68% increased risk of hospitalisation in patients with heart failure
People who are socially isolated or have a limited social circle may delay seeking help or ring the ambulance should they feel ill. This in turn could increase the risk of mortality and morbidity.
There is extensive research on how loneliness corresponds with mental health disorder. One theory is that people who are lonely have an altered way of thinking. This could stem from negative beliefs about themselves due to a disproportionate recall of negative memories. They may also have a heightened anticipation of social rejection which then worsens loneliness.
We also know that loneliness and social isolation is a risk factor for suicide.
Loneliness is often associated health behaviours such as substance abuse. Many people use alcohol, smoking or recreational drugs to fill in the physical or emotional void they experience. Food is another 'substance' that is used which has other health implications such as obesity, hypertension diabetes and hypercholesterolemia. Emotional eating is not uncommon especially processed carbohydrate as it helps boost serotonin levels. As we know, processed carbohydrates get broken down into sugar molecules and over a cascade of reactions cause weight gain.
This in turn can result in worsening loneliness for example avoiding social situations due to having body image issues. There is sufficient evidence to establish that loneliness does increase the risk of premature death for a variety of reasons as described above.
Author: Dr Saveena Nithiananthan MBBS, FRACGP, IBLM
Savena is a General Practitioner, Medical Educator and member of the International Board of Lifestyle Medicine