Human beings are social creatures. We have a need to interact with others. We want to talk. We want to touch. We want to share ideas and have different ideas come back to us. This is how we create the bonds that bind us. Our ability to form connections through shared experiences has helped us develop as a society. We tend to be the happiest, most fulfilled, and most productive when we have meaningful connections. These connections create a sense of purpose in our lives.
As a primary care physician, I know our brains are wired for connection. When we have productive social interactions, our brains flourish. The opposite is also true. The risk of cognitive decline and even dementia increases when our brains are inactive.
To maintain brain health, it is important to preserve our social networks. As we age, however, maintaining these networks becomes more difficult. Relatives get sick and die. Friends move away. Children lead their own busy, independent lives.
When those we depend on are no longer around to keep our brains sharp and help us thrive physically, mentally, and emotionally, it is critical that we create new networks. Anyone, not just a doctor, can recognize the signs of decline and help others create these networks.
Without social networks, feelings of loneliness can have a detrimental effect on a person’s self-care routine and overall wellbeing. Those who feel lonely are less likely to get regular exercise, bathe, eat well, and keep doctor appointments. This behavior can increase their risk for health problems, such as cognitive decline, physical illness, and depression.
Over time, loneliness and isolation inhibit the production of feel-good chemicals like dopamine and promote the release of stress-related chemicals like cortisol. Long-term loneliness puts a body in a chronic stress state, resulting in weight gain, sleep deprivation, and a weakened immune system. Chronic stress caused by loneliness elevates blood pressure, which can increase a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke.
Loneliness and isolation change the neurochemistry inside the brain. Those suffering from loneliness are at a 50 percent greater risk for cognitive decline and dementia as they age. In fact, studies show these numbers are significant when compared to individuals with supportive social networks. All these factors put lonely individuals at 26 percent greater odds of early mortality than non-lonely individuals. The risk of premature death due to loneliness and social isolation may rival that of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Creating new networks and relationships can prevent the physical and mental decline caused by loneliness. Seniors will discover, however, that it takes both creativity and courage to put themselves in new situations, especially if they are uncomfortable with putting themselves out there. Thankfully, shared interests are a great way to connect with people you may otherwise never meet. Local hobby groups, book clubs, volunteering, and countless other opportunities exist for people to come together and interact. When you engage with people over shared interests, you stimulate your brain. In medical terms, cognitive stimulation releases feel-good hormones such as dopamine and serotonin and keeps people sharp.
Of course, hobby groups and book clubs are not an option for medically complex seniors who have difficulty leaving the house. But COVID pushed a slowly developing video technology industry into warp drive. Zoom, Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp, and countless other platforms not only provided new ways for locked-down people to maintain social connections, but it also helped shut-in seniors connect with others for the first time in years. Online game and movie nights, virtual weddings and birthday parties, and group chats became the norm. Even doctors discovered new ways to see and examine patients from a distance. Unwittingly, the worst pandemic in a century became an antidote for loneliness, social isolation, and mental decline. Technology was no longer clunky, mysterious, and a barrier to connectiveness. Instead, it became a way to maintain networks.
Physicians who take a holistic view of healthcare are better positioned to notice what the absence of social interactions has on their patients. The goal is to address issues early before the individual’s perception of the world changes. Someone who is feeling isolated and disconnected begins to have greater difficulty trusting others and letting them into their lives. As a result, their desire to form new relationships is compromised. At this point, getting the patient to engage with others in new ways becomes increasingly difficult.
It’s important that we are aware of the risks associated with social isolation and support those we love who may be feeling left out and showing signs of loneliness. It is equally important to be proactive and help them actively seek opportunities to meet people with similar interests. Finding common ground and meeting people who are willing to talk about current events, their families, and their beliefs will improve health.
If at any time you see someone who is not quite acting like themselves, they may be experiencing a drop in their social interactions with others. A doctor can assess the risk of cognitive and physical decline and help the individual get the support and resources needed to stay active, engaged, and healthy.