Loneliness and Social Isolation

August 3, 2018 – Volume 28, Issue 28
Do they pose a growing health epidemic? By Christina L. Lyons


New Studies

In the next five to 10 years, researchers likely will continue to expand and refine studies on how loneliness affects human health and on solutions.

Brigham Young's Holt-Lunstad is studying the health care costs connected to social isolation, while other researchers are focusing on possibly developing drugs to treat the health effects of loneliness. “We are at an early stage with loneliness — we called it out as a pain and don't know what to do with it,” UCLA's Cole says. “We know inflammatory signal molecules go through the blood and into the brain, which makes you feel sick” so that you rest, he says.

Thus, “when people get lonely, biology kicks in and helps them stay lonely longer.” However, he adds, “It's not clear just treating with anti-inflammatory medications will do that much,” and other drugs can create other health problems. “But there is a lot of interest in what is going on in the brain and whether we can develop drugs that target that.”

Psychiatrists say that many people suffering from loneliness due to a breakdown in traditional community ties and family support might turn to antidepressants for treatment. But psychiatrists say such drugs are designed to treat depression related to low levels of a hormone called serotonin and do not substitute for social connections.

Caroline Abrahams of Age UK in Britain said rather than prescribe antidepressants, doctors should help people “connect with their communities and get back in touch with or make new friends.”87

NORC's Hawkley says extensive research needs to be done on how to effectively help people who feel lonely despite efforts to engage them. “Just because you engage people in an activity, they can still feel lonely,” she says. And increasing contact with family members could have a negative effect for some people, depending on family dynamics, she adds.

As for loneliness among young adults, some observers cite the recent uptick in student protests and rallies around the issue of gun control as an indication that more young people are becoming politically engaged. But experts say it is unclear whether such activity will reduce loneliness or social isolation.

“Participating in political movements and organizations can connect people, and that's one reason people choose to participate in politics,” Peter Levine, an associate dean for research and a professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University, said in an e-mail. “Thus there is some potential for an energizing election to reduce social isolation, but only if organizations and networks emerge that really engage people — as opposed to [simply] driving them to the polls at the last minute.”

David Ellis, director of communications studies at York University in Toronto, worries about individuals’ growing reliance on technology, citing evidence that digital addiction is “promoting depression, loneliness …, even suicidal behavior, especially among teens and adults.” Konrath of Indiana University says much more study needs to be done on how technology use — for work, entertainment or social connections — affects loneliness. About half of Americans believe future digital technologies will have more beneficial than negative effects on society, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, but many also believe that it could further erode social life and increase loneliness.88

And as scientists learn more about the brain, researchers could potentially develop drugs to target the feelings or pain associated with loneliness. “I think there will be a lot of interest in understanding the biology a bit more,” Cole says. “We are at an early stage [of understanding] loneliness.”

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[87] Chris Smyth and Louis Goddard, “Doctors using antidepressants to treat epidemic of loneliness,” The Times, July 21 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybxu88ga.

[88] Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century (2009); Philipp Kuwert, Christine Knaevelsrud and Robert H. Pietrzak, “Loneliness Among Older Veterans in the United States: Results from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study,” American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry, 2014, https://tinyurl.com/y8jseeck; Aoife Hickey and Jason Crabtree, “Ageing and autism: loneliness and isolation,” Network Autism, Feb. 2, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8sfo49r; Janna Anderson and Lee R. Rainie, “The Future of Well Being in a Tech-Saturated World: Concerns about the future of people's well-being,” Pew Research Center, April 17, 2018, p. 2.

Document APA Citation
Lyons, C. L. (2018, August 3). Loneliness and Social Isolation. CQ researcher, 28, 657-680. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2018080307
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2018080307
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Aug. 03, 2018  Loneliness and Social Isolation
Feb. 12, 2010  Sleep Deprivation
Dec. 06, 2002  Homework Debate
Aug. 04, 1995  Job Stress
Jun. 23, 1995  Repetitive Stress Injuries
Aug. 14, 1992  Work, Family and Stress
Aug. 13, 1982  Pressures on Youth
Nov. 28, 1980  Stress Management
Jul. 15, 1970  Stress In Modern Life
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Internet and Social Media
Marriage and Divorce
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