healing, science

No Man is an Island…


I’ve written the last couple of days this week on the importance of social connection, love, and friendship. Love in the form of charity is a giving of oneself to others. The key to a lonely heart, opening it up as it were to human connection. This, we know from science, feeds not only the soul, but the physical mind and body as well. 

Being too much alone is not good. For mental health, or for the brain’s ability to function properly. 

These figures are concerning to public health experts, because scientific research has revealed a link between social isolation—along with negative emotions such as loneliness that often accompany it—and poor health. “We are seeing a really growing body of evidence,” says Fancourt, “that’s showing how isolation and loneliness are linked in with incidence of different types of disease [and] with premature mortality.” Alongside myriad connections to poor physical health, including obesity and cardiovascular problems, a range of possible effects on the human brain have now been documented: Social isolation is associated with increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia, as well as mental health consequences such as depression and anxiety.


By the time the nine-person crew of the Antarctic research station Neumayer III emerged from their 14-month stay a couple of years ago, they’d endured winter temperatures of -50 °C, drastic changes in natural light, and prolonged lack of contact with the outside world. The effects on their brains, it turned out, were substantial. 

Structural MRI performed by neuroscientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development before and after the trip showed anatomical changes to the dentate gyrus, a region of the brain that feeds information into the hippocampus and is associated with learning and memory; the crew members’ dentate gyruses had shrunk by an average of around 7 percent. The crew members also had reduced blood levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein involved in stress regulation and memory, and they performed worse on tests of spatial awareness and attention than they had before they left.

The participants in this study were contending with more than just social isolation during their expedition, making it hard to know whether the observed brain changes are linked to lack of social contact as opposed to circadian disruption or some other aspect of their experience. But researchers studying social isolation and loneliness in the general population are also beginning to document differences in brain structure that could help reveal biological mechanisms at play.

And from a prolonged study of the elderly: 

Although men and women appear to differ in how strong and complex the associations were, the overall message from the models for both genders was that social isolation predicts changes in memory. Overall results indicate that older men with high levels of isolation and women with continuing isolation over time experience memory decline and might benefit from targeted interventions. 

Studies have shown that prolonged isolation can lead to weakened ability to physically move, 

social isolation and loneliness were found to be associated with a decrease in gait speed at follow-up, with stronger effects among more disadvantaged individuals. Loneliness was associated with an increase in difficulties with activities of daily living. 

Although most of the studies are done on the elderly, this is because what is happening now, with the pandemic causing widespread isolation, is unprecedented. We will see, I cannot help but conclude, many of these effects in all ages. Humans are not meant to be alone. 

Social relationships are important for health . Most such research has focused on social isolation or loneliness. Social isolation is defined objectively using criteria such as having few contacts, little involvement in social activities and living alone. Loneliness is a subjective feeling of dissatisfaction with one’s social relationships. Both social isolation and loneliness have been linked with increased mortality, incident heart disease  and functional decline. 

I urge you to reach out. If you cannot physically be with family and friends, at least exercise your mind by making a phone call. Do a video chat. Write a letter. Sit down and compose a chatty email. And if you are the recipient of a loving gesture like that from your friends, reciprocate! 
Now is the perfect time to bring back pen pals! 

3 thoughts on “No Man is an Island…

  1. While I know that “hiding in my cave” isn’t good for me, I had a crazy thought.

    Imagine a government program for making people interact with other people even if the person doesn’t like to deal with the people “assigned” to them. [Sarcastic Grin]

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