By Kenzie Ferguson

This post is the second in a four-part series where we will dive into the topic of social isolation as a determinant of health and its connection to oral health.

As covered in Part 1 of the series, social isolation is the absence of contact and support from friends, family or community. While many are experiencing it during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was already a common condition among older adults pre-pandemic. This is a problem because – beyond the clear psychological effects of social isolation and associated loneliness.

Here are a few of the more well-documented connections between health and social isolation:

Depression and anxiety

Not surprisingly, there is an increased risk of depression and anxiety among those who are socially isolated and lonely. A study published in The Lancet in January of 2020 indicates that “social disconnectedness predicted higher subsequent perceived isolation, which in turn predicted higher depression symptoms and anxiety symptoms.” A study that looked at social isolation across lifespans found that children and adults who are lonely are more likely to have had suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide. 

Dementia

Being socially isolated can lead to mental decline. A study at the Florida State University College of Medicine uncovered a strong connection between loneliness and dementia. Loneliness increased the risk of dementia by 40 percent among study participants over a 10-year period. 

Heart disease and stroke

According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease already accounts for more deaths each year than “all forms of cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease combined.” Older adults are already at increased risk for heart disease, so those experiencing social isolation are even more vulnerable. According to the report Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults, published by the National Academy of Sciences, “Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) have been associated with a 29 percent increased risk of incident coronary heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke.”

Increased risk of death

Given the many adverse health effects associated with social isolation, it’s hardly surprising that studies demonstrate it also associated with an increased risk of death. This paints an incredibly grim picture for approximately 1 in 4 adults over the age of 65 who are socially isolated.

Steve Cole, Ph.D., is the director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, researched the effects of loneliness on the body and mind. He put it best when he said, “Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases. The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.”

Could loneliness and isolation be more damaging than other factors that harm our health? It seems to be associated with many risks and severe health issues. The pandemic has worsened the situation for the already isolated adults over the age of 65 who are now forced to remain alone in their homes, which could cause long-term health issues for this group.

In our next post, we will look specifically at the connections between oral health and social isolation. And, in our final post in the series, we will examine what is being done to identify and implement solutions that reduce social isolation and loneliness among older adults.