Loneliness, social isolation and inflammation
Times are trying today. Many people are lonely, but perhaps many more are socially isolated. It should come as no surprise that loneliness and social isolation can negatively impact our wellbeing, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, dementia and other illnesses. Recent research suggests the combination of loneliness and social isolation do this because they increase inflammation. While we usually think of inflammation as a means of fighting off illness or healing injuries (short-term inflammation), your body’s immune system can produce the same chemicals when you experience social or psychological stress. This is elevated long-term inflammation, and it’s usually associated with poor health. But first, let’s define the terms we’re discussing. Loneliness is the “subjective state of feeling alone” and social isolation is the “objective state of being alone.”
The case for loneliness
The link between loneliness and inflammation is not strong. Nevertheless, researchers did observe a weak but inconsistent link between loneliness and an inflammatory marker called interleukin-6. Research suggests instead that loneliness might affect how our bodies react to stress, as lonely people are “more likely to have an enhanced inflammatory response to stress,” according to one study. Researchers believe that it’s more likely that loneliness “changes how the inflammatory system responds to stress rather than directly impacting inflammatory response.”
The case for social isolation
Humans are a social species. Consequently, social isolation could eventually lead to stress. And stress directly impacts our immune system. Another reason could be that our body turns on its immune system when we’re isolated because it believes we are at greater risk of being injured. It’s possible that inflammation could lead to social isolation. If you’re feeling ill, you’re less likely to want to be around other people to keep from infecting them. Moreover, if you’re battling several illnesses, you’re less likely to move about and interact with others, making you socially isolated. In the most extensive study of its kind (analyzing 30 previous studies), researchers found that socially isolated people tend to have higher C-reactive protein and fibrinogen levels.
C-reactive protein and Fibrinogen
C-reactive protein, which is made in the liver, is a good indicator of inflammation. The higher the level, the poorer the health. Fibrinogen, which helps blood clot, is more elevated when people are injured or have experienced trauma. “When people have long-term increased levels of these inflammatory markers, it can lead to an “increased risk of poorer health over time,” according to the study. Researchers also observed that the link between social isolation and inflammation was more likely in females than males, although they were unsure why. One possible explanation is that females and males might respond to social stressors differently.
Both linked to health outcomes
According to Dr. Kimberley Smith, Lecturer in Health Psychology at the University of Surrey, “Loneliness and social isolation have been shown to increase our risk of poorer health. Many researchers propose that part of this is because they influence the body’s inflammatory response. The evidence we examined suggests that social isolation may be linked with inflammation. The results for a direct link between loneliness and inflammation, however, were less convincing. We believe these results are an important first step in helping us to better understand how loneliness and social isolation may be linked with health outcomes.
Loneliness and social isolation linked
Christina Victor, Professor of Gerontology and Public Health at Brunel, added: “Our results suggest loneliness and social isolation are linked with different inflammatory markers. This shows how important it is to distinguish between loneliness and isolation, and that these terms should neither be used interchangeably nor grouped together.” So, where does that leave us in these times of forced social isolation? Will we discover that lockdowns, social-distancing and social-isolation have unleashed a bevy of associated problems and illnesses? Only time will tell.