When thinking of health risks, some are more obvious than others. Sugar, a sedentary lifestyle, excessive use of alcohol or the abuse of drugs – these are all things we understand to be unhealthy (and they are). However, many hidden dangers can be as bad for one’s health as the more overt ones, if not worse. A perfect example of this is found in the health risks associated with isolation – a quiet epidemic that often affects seniors, persons with disabilities or chronic illness and other vulnerable members of the community.
Loneliness vs isolation
It’s important to understand the difference between loneliness and isolation. While both can be detrimental to one’s well-being, they are separate and distinct things. Essentially, loneliness is a feeling while isolation is a state of being. Loneliness is subjective, as it relates to the difference between a person’s desire for social contact and the actual amount of social contact they experience1. A person can be lonely in a room full of people if they are not connecting with anyone in a meaningful way. A university student can feel lonely in a dorm full of strangers. This is because loneliness is an emotional response, not a mathematical measurement.
Isolation, however, is when a person has limited contact with other people, whether intentionally or by circumstance. A senior who lives alone and rarely has visitors may be isolated. It is an objective measure based on the frequency of one’s social contact vs more subjective elements, such as quality and emotions associated with it. Loneliness and isolation can coexist, but neither condition is dependent on the presence of the other2.
Worse than smoking or obesity
Recent medical research has found the effect of isolation to be more dangerous than both smoking and obesity. It is prevalent among seniors – in fact, CBC reported that 1.4 million Canadian seniors describe themselves as isolated3 and nearly half of women over age 75 live alone4. That said, isolation can affect anyone, regardless of age.
Not only is isolation quite sad, it’s dangerous. One study equated the effects of isolation comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day – an astounding and perhaps unexpected result5. People living in social isolation are less likely to take medication as prescribed, eat right and be active (particularly after surgery, which can impede recovery time). More so, loneliness (again, not the same as isolation but frequently a symptom of it) can actually increase genes that cause inflammation and decrease one’s ability to make antibodies and fight infection. Immune systems suffer. People get sick. All of this due to a lack of human contact and connection! It’s an incredible discovery, and a frightening one.
As our team continues to prioritize the health, wealth and happiness of our clients, we hope this has been a thought-provoking read that encourages us all to reach out to our loved ones and check on their well-being. We are stronger when we are informed, and when we support one another.