The psychological and physical side effects induced by the social isolation imposed on us by confinement could lead in the coming years to healthcare costs as important, or even greater, than those of COVID-19 itself, says a researcher from McGill University. In particular, the deleterious effects of loneliness caused by physical distancing measures could increase the number of diagnoses of Alzheimer’s disease after the crisis.
In an article published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, the Dr Danilo Bzdok, professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute and at Mila, Quebec Institute of Artificial Intelligence, and Robin Dunbar, emeritus professor in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, in the United Kingdom, recall the many deleterious effects on psychological health, but also physical health, which loneliness can cause, which was probably exacerbated by the social isolation that prevailed during confinement.
Research has shown that people who suffer from loneliness are more likely to suffer from strokes and heart attacks. They are more likely to get infections and suffer more from them because of weakened immune systems. In short, their life expectancy is lower.
“Loneliness affects various physiological systems in the body,” including the coagulation system and the hormonal system involved in stress, notes Dr Bzdok. “We know that, in people suffering from loneliness, the coagulation system does not work as well as in normal people. The waterfalls that lead to coagulation are disturbed. These people also have a disruption of cortisol, the stress hormone, “he said.
“People who live in solitude all the time find themselves chronically in a situation of stress. Social interaction is so important for humans, is so crucial for people of all ages, from babies to the elderly, that if there is a lack of social interactions as it could be due to the massive isolation that resulted from confinement, these people perceive this social exclusion as a threat. Studies in monkeys, rats, mice, but also in humans, have shown that the brain circuits involved in alerting behavior when faced with danger [soit les circuits associés au stress] are used chronically in people living alone and who suffer from loneliness. “Explains the Dr Bzdok.
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However, this constant stress on the stress circuits “has consequences for many other things, such as memory and quality of sleep. Since sleep is a crucial step in the process of memory consolidation, memory will therefore be potentially affected in people living alone. The fact that single people smoke more and are more likely to abuse substances like alcohol may also be linked to stress, “he said.
Loneliness of course has psychological consequences. Studies have indicated that people who feel lonely often have a distorted or even mistaken perception of reality. “They tend to perceive as more negative the emotions and social information conveyed by the facial expression of the person they are looking at. And since the face is probably the most effective tool for transmitting socio-emotional information, if the interpretation of the faces is distorted, this will have important consequences. These people will feel even more socially excluded, which will help to reinforce their feeling of loneliness, “explains the neuroscientist.
Loneliness is associated with several mental disorders, mainly depression and anxiety. “However, it is unclear whether it is the feeling of loneliness that drives someone into depression or whether it is depression that plunges them into loneliness,” says Dr.r Bzdok.
Loneliness also accelerates the development of neurodegenerative diseases, especially Alzheimer’s disease. It “is diagnosed on average earlier in single people” than in those who live with someone else. As loneliness may have weighed more heavily than usual on many older adults during confinement, “it is possible that we may see a higher rate of Alzheimer’s and earlier diagnoses than before the social isolation that was imposed on us because of the pandemic. The side effects of the loneliness engendered by this social isolation could result in costs to the health system in the years to come that will be as great, if not more, than those arising directly from COVID-19 itself, and the disease of ‘Alzheimer’s could play a big role’, underlines the Dr Bzdok, who however distinguishes between loneliness and social isolation. “Loneliness is a subjective feeling, which means that someone who is very well surrounded can still feel alone and conversely someone who has very little social contact may not suffer from loneliness. Social isolation is more objective, it can be measured by determining the frequency of social contact that a person has with family members or friends. The current situation we live in has mainly an impact on social isolation. But it is true that one is more likely to suffer from loneliness if one is in social isolation, even if it is not automatically linked, because various factors, including personality traits, come into play. one who is an extrovert, who lives alone, who does not like Facebook, will be much more likely to suffer from loneliness, “he said.
“Modern communication platforms, especially those that have a visual component, like Zoom, Facebook, WhatsApp, can replace many aspects of normal social life. In a time of crisis and isolation, like now, they help us maintain a healthy level of social interaction. Social isolation is however more difficult for very young children and older people who do not know how to use these tools and who are therefore more vulnerable to loneliness due to social isolation than others! “, He adds.