September 26, 2021
Scientists have known for quite some time that isolation can have negative effects on the brain, particularly in people over 50. Studies in laboratory animals clearly show that isolation is associated with actual shrinkage of brain tissue, accompanied by the types of tissue changes typically seen in Alzheimer’s dementia. And studies in humans show an increase in the chance an isolated person will develop dementia.
Over the past eighteen months or so, due to the SARS-CoV2 pandemic, social isolation has become an even bigger problem, both for many older adults as well as younger people. It’s important to understand that social isolation is a complex concept, as it’s the perception of isolation that causes the difficulty, not whether someone is actually living alone or with others. People who report feeling lonely have faster rates of cognitive decline than those who don’t suffer from disconnection.
Until recently, most research on social isolation was focused on the elderly, as factors such as retirement from work life, declining mobility, poor eyesight and hearing, and other reasons kept many older individuals confined to their homes or immediate surroundings. But with the onset of the pandemic and the various requirements and restrictions regarding social distancing, cancellation of many events, for those still working or in school, having to adapt to the somewhat abrupt transition to sitting in front of one’s computer for a large part of the day trying to be productive or to learn.
A January 2021 study examined the effects of perceived social isolation in 309 adult participants across a wide age span, from ages 18 to 84. The researchers concluded that the stress of perceived social isolation didn’t affect just older adults but had a huge impact on the mental health of young adults as well. The authors theorize that stress and social isolation could impair immune functioning, and these effects are likely to continue, especially given the uncertainty of the virus.
But it’s not just brain function that is negatively affected, as isolation and loneliness have also been tied to the development of depression, anxiety, chronic inflammation, and even heart attack and stroke. So what can be done about this? What should you do if you believe your (or a family member’s) memory and thinking are being negatively impacted by the isolation that is a result of the pandemic?
Of course, if you believe that you or a loved one has a serious memory or cognitive problem you should make arrangements to see your family physician as soon as possible. But if you think these problems could be related to isolation, or you just want to prevent any negative effects, then here are some suggestions:
One - Reach out to friends. A simple phone call is just as effective at easing isolation and loneliness as an in-person visit or an online virtual meeting.
Two - Take advantage of video conferencing software such as Zoom™ that will enable you to both talk and be on camera so you can see and hear everyone in the virtual “room.” You can meet with friends, family, or members of your church or club. If you don’t belong to any of these organizations, there are free groups for most any interest on Facebook™ and many of these meet online regularly.
Three - Call the Friendship Line! Yes, there is actually a 24-hour toll-free Friendship Line, staffed with both trained volunteers as well as professionals who will have a friendly conversation or offer emotional support for older adults. The number is (800) 971 - 0016.
Four - Participate with others in group online games. The video game industry saw explosive growth during the pandemic, and young adults, in particular, even those who used to play solo, are reaching out via interactive online games to interact and actually speak (via a headset) with other players from around the world.
Five - Consider getting a pet, such as a cat or a dog.A pet of any kind can be helpful, but having a cat or dog can be especially helpful in reducing anxiety and depression, stress, and easing loneliness. Just be sure that if you get a pet as a result of being at home temporarily that you have the means to care for them if you return to work outside the home at some point. Owning a pet is a big responsibility, so be sure you’re ready for the long-term commitment before you jump in.
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