Many of us understand the need for each of us to have some amount of personal space and isolation from time to time. Whether to recharge our emotional batteries, think through some thoughts, or just spend our time on our own terms, research has shown that periods of self-imposed isolation can reduce stress, build self reflection and self esteem, and improve focus.
But just as with anything else, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. Spending too much time by yourself is bad and unhealthy if it leads to isolation. As the saying goes, no man is an island, and humans are by nature social creatures. When an individual becomes isolated and withdrawn from society writ large and other people, it can be just as debilitating, and potentially indistinguishable from, a chronic medical condition. There’s much research into social isolation and loneliness in an attempt to understand the causes, the impact it has on health, and how it can be counteracted.
So you may be wondering how social isolation is defined, and if it is necessarily the same thing as loneliness. The truth is these are actually two distinct conditions. Loneliness is subjective and is more about how you perceive yourself in relation to the people and the world around you.
Social isolation, however, is objective and quantifiable. Factors such as the size and depth of one’s social network, level of mobility and independence, access to transportation, resources, and education all make up a constellation that can be studied to determine if someone is or will become socially isolated. Of course, loneliness will naturally often be the byproduct of social isolation.
Social isolation is not inherently age-specific. However, due to a number of ways the aging process changes our conditions internally and externally, older people are at particular threat of suffering from it. According to studies, approximately 35-43 percent of adults among older age categories report feeling loneliness and at least 50 percent of adults aged 60 and older are at risk for social isolation.
People who are socially isolated are more likely to be admitted into an emergency room or a nursing home. Cruelly, people experiencing chronic isolation are subject to emotional pain that can trigger the same biological responses as physical pain, which can cause chronic inflammation and a weakened immune system. Because of this, older adults experiencing isolation are at greater risk for a number of harmful medical conditions, such as hypertension, heart disease, obesity, and more. The health effects of prolonged isolation are just as bad for your health as a pack a day smoking habit.
Feelings of isolation must be taken as seriously as you would any physical symptom, and worth a conversation with your doctor. While it may be embarrassing, it’s important to be open and honest with your doctor about your health habits and what’s happening in your life. Your care provider should be able to monitor the toll your isolation is taking on your body and well-being, and provide you with a plan and strategies to reverse any ill effects and get yourself more socially integrated again.