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Social Isolation

UBC PATHS Blog Post: Feb 3, 2024



What is Social Isolation?

Social isolation is the lack of relationships with others and little to no social support or contact. Loneliness is the feeling of being alone regardless of the amount of social contact. It is difficult to measure both social isolation and loneliness precisely but evidence shows that many adults over the age of 50 are socially isolated or lonely and this can put their health at risk. Social isolation can increase a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, it is associated with an increased risk of dementia, heart disease and stroke. Loneliness is associated with a higher risk of depression, anxiety and suicide. Lots of factors can increase a person’s risk of social isolation and loneliness such as, having a lower income, having a psychiatric disorder, being marginalized or discriminated against, difficulties accessing basic needs, stress, chronic disease/condition, long-term disability etc. Social isolation mostly affects older adults, adults living alone, people with chronic diseases and disabilities and immigrants. Study shows that 58% of Canadians 50 and older have experienced loneliness while 40% are socially isolated. Other studies show that nearly 1 in 4 adults aged 65 and older are socially isolated. 


Effects/Signs/Symptoms of Social Isolation 

It is important to differentiate social isolation from healthy alone time people have once in a while. Symptoms of social isolation usually cause an unhealthy lifestyle and may cause psychological and physiological damage to one’s body. Some signs of social isolation include constant avoidance of social gatherings and interactions that the individual once enjoyed, feeling anxious, and experiencing panic attacks when thinking about social interactions. In replace of social activities, individuals with social isolation only feel distressed when alone, and prefer spending large amounts of time doing solo activities that allow for limited interactions with other people. Aside from these physiological symptoms, people with social isolation also isolate themselves mentally. This form of psychological isolation is expressed through the inability to communicate their feelings to others and reciprocate others’ emotions. Over prolonged periods of isolation from people and emotions, socially isolated people will eventually become numb and detached from their psychological thoughts and feelings. 


Causes

There are several causes that may result in social isolation. Some examples include the loss of a loved one, chronic conditions, geographic isolation, stigmatization surrounding physical disabilities, unemployment, and more.  Although aging is not considered a cause of social isolation, individuals over the age of 50 are more likely to experience the aforementioned risk factors. Additionally, certain pre existing mental health issues such as anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression can have bidirectional relationships with social isolation. This means that these conditions can be the result of social isolation, or can cause it. Physical distancing measures, like those put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, can also result in social isolation. 


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