We often use the words “loneliness” and “isolation” interchangeably, and in the past year or so, many of us have become all too acquainted with both of them. However, it’s possible to be isolated but not lonely, or lonely but not isolated. And both have a significant impact on our physical and mental well-being.
Social isolation is a lack of social connections. This could be due to quarantine, living in a remote area, living alone, or any number of other factors that might prevent a person from having a network of people to rely on and confide in.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is the feeling of being socially isolated, which isn’t necessarily the same. A person can have a lot of social connections with others and still feel lonely, while a socially isolated person might have only a few close social connections, but not feel lonely.
Loneliness and social isolation were significant issues even before the pandemic
Even before the pandemic, loneliness and social isolation were significant issues. In a report from the National Academics of Science, Engineering and Medicine, one quarter of Americans older than 65 were found to be socially isolated, while a significant number of adults over the age of 45 were reported to feel lonely, with the proportion increasing with age.
This report was published in February 2020, just before our world turned upside down, forcing us into quarantine and maintaining a physical distance between us. As Carla Perissonotto, one of the authors of the report and a faculty member in geriatric medicine at the University of California, San Francisco told the Senate Special Committee on Aging, “The reality is that to some extent we are in a data-free zone. We do not know how long we have to be lonely or isolated, or how severe this must be for us to have lasting negative consequences.”
Our strategies for mitigating loneliness need to change
As for what to do about social isolation and loneliness, we’re in new territory. What we do know is that both social isolation and loneliness are detrimental to our health. Social isolation leads to an increased risk of premature death, as well as a higher risk of dementia. Both social isolation and loneliness increase our risk for heart attack and stroke, while loneliness often causes higher rates of anxiety and depression.
As the pandemic stretches on, our ability to mitigate our social isolation is still curtailed by COVID-19 precautions. We’re also all dealing with Zoom fatigue, while social media and other forms of digital communication can only go so far.
In terms of how well digital contact can help stave off loneliness, studies have shown mixed results, with one study showing an increase in loneliness in spite of an increase in digital communication, while another study showed that although adults over the age of 50 experienced increased social isolation, their rates of loneliness remained stable.
Think about what you need to feel less alone
However, when it comes to social isolation and loneliness, what we can do is think about what it is that we need to feel less alone. When it comes to meaningful social contact, this will look different for everyone, which means that what works for one person may not work for another. As Perissinotto told the NY Times, what we can do is think about the kinds of connections we need, and how we might be able to get them.
Whatever it is that can help you feel a little less alone, it’s important to seek that out and devote the time you need for it. Your health and well-being will thank you.