My neighbor’s elderly father died during the coronavirus pandemic. The virus wasn’t the culprit, at least not directly — the man wasn’t infected. However, right before passing away he confided in his daughter that what was killing him, was loneliness. Loneliness caused by the outbreak.
Although that story happened in France, in many countries across the planet, U.S. included, the elderly in nursing homes have found themselves on total lockdown during the pandemic — to protect their health, the thinking went. And they were not the only ones. In hospitals coronavirus patients spend hours sealed off from anyone else, completely alone. As one American nurse told me, the healthcare workers often don’t feel like they can connect with their patients and simply be there for them — what with all the safety protocols, the layers of protective equipment. “We are leaving these people in isolation, alone,” she said.
But it’s not just hospitalized COVID-19 patients and nursing home residents who suffer from lack of social connection during the current pandemic. Most of us do. We are told to socially distance ourselves, to limit contacts, not to hug friends. From the perspective of the immune system functioning and health in general, that’s disastrous.
Research shows that social isolation and loneliness up the risk of early death, increase the risk of stroke and cancer, and even raise blood pressure — which is a bad thing as COVID-19 goes, elevating the probability of complications. In one study of people in their 50s and 60s, being lonely predicted having higher blood pressure few years down the road. For the most lonely individuals, their systolic blood pressure would hike up as much as 3.6 mm per year — meaning you could go from a perfectly normal measurements of 119 mm Hg to 130 mm Hg, which is already hypertension, in a mere three years.
There are also direct links between social isolation and how resistant our bodies are to viruses. In one series of experiments over 300 people were voluntarily infected with common cold viruses (the volunteers were paid $800 for their participation, which could explain their willingness to suffer for science). For several days after exposure they were assessed for the symptoms of cold — from weighting their nose mucus to measuring virus-specific antibody titers in their blood. The results showed that those volunteers who were the most socially isolated before infection had about 45 percent higher risk of developing the cold from the dose they’ve received. Although in this particular study the viruses used were from the rhinovirus family, another study done back in the 1990s showed that stress really ups your risk of developing symptoms of common coronaviruses (the mild type, those that used to cause us colds for centuries).
And what really counteracts stress? The answer is connection with others, kindness, even simple touch — which can lower the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. What’s more, research shows that people who experience chronic social isolation have different expression of genes responsible for the antiviral response and for antibody production, making them more susceptible to such pathogens.
Of course, this is not to say that we should just throw in the towel and stop isolating coronavirus patients on hospital wards or give up on lockdowns and social distancing. Not at all. But there are things we can do to minimize the feelings of loneliness. We can, for instance, connect with others online — and certain ways are better than others. For one, try to call instead of texting. Research reveals, for example, that hearing your mother’s reassuring words on the phone causes a larger oxytocin release than does receiving similar support through a text message. Oxytocin, in turn, dampens stress and may lower plasma C-reactive protein levels (although for now this is only based on animal studies). Researchers in China, meanwhile, have recently found that elevated levels of C-reactive protein may predict aggravation of symptoms of COVID-19.
Some great initiatives to counter social isolation during the pandemic are already under way. In Texas, nursing care facilities can now apply for funding to buy tablets, webcams and headphones for their residents — to help them reconnect with their loved ones online. In New York, a new program is now being proposed that would allow coronavirus survivors to visit and console hospitalized COVID-19 patients. As for me and my family, we simply try to pay more attention to each other, be empathetic, hug each other often, find time to talk. To make sure all of us feel connected.
Marta Zaraska is a science journalist and author of “Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100.”
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