How social distancing might be affecting your health

We’ve probably never been more alone than we are in 2020.

This year has been the year of social isolation, with social distancing measures (or at least encouragements) in effect since March.

In some countries, there have been months when citizens were completely disallowed from seeing each other, had curfews, or couldn’t travel farther than 200 meters from their homes. In the U.S., though rules have mostly not been quite that strict, the majority of us have still stayed largely away from other people, and we haven’t seen our friends, family members, coworkers, or acquaintances in months.

We’ve felt lonely, supported loved ones through their own loneliness over Zoom or phone calls, sung from our balconies, transformed meetings and classrooms to virtual gatherings, and found ways to entertain ourselves, all by our lonesome.

Though aspects of this have been enjoyable, peaceful, and a nice change of pace, so much alone time also has its downsides.

There are the struggles of missing family gatherings and dinners with friends. There’s the strangeness of communicating solely through telephones and computers. There are the last goodbyes said over FaceTime.

And, as if these experiences weren’t painful enough, there may also be greater, long-term health risks posed by all this loneliness.

Loneliness and high blood pressure

The number one cause of death for women in the United States is heart disease. And one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease is high blood pressure.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have been investigating the ways in which social isolation impacts blood pressure. They have found that women who are socially isolated or have less frequent social interactions have higher odds of developing hypertension (high blood pressure).

This means that, for older women, all of this loneliness can lead to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, which increases mortality rates. So, in essence, being alone often enough and for long enough can actually kill us—or at least increase our risk.

The researchers went so far as to say that “among older adults, social isolation is the largest known risk factor for mortality, equal only to smoking.”

Another study, done in 2010, found a similar link between loneliness and blood pressure. They found that loneliness, though not social network size, was a significant risk factor for increased blood pressure over time. This suggests that, when it comes to loneliness, the kinds of relationships you have and the frequency and quality of social interaction may be much more important than the size of your social circle—at least when it comes to blood pressure.

But, no matter the specific type of social isolation at issue, the study makes it clear that loneliness is a health risk factor. As the researchers state, “the implications for loneliness and its role in health and well-being are profound.”

How to manage social isolation

These findings may be particularly concerning this year, given that we don’t have much choice in how often we see our loved ones. But there are still things we can do to decrease our risk of loneliness-induced hypertension.

For one, make sure you’re reaching out to loved ones as often as you can—even if it’s just a text, phone call, or Skype date. These technological interactions, though maybe not as good as the real thing, are still interactions—and likely help to counteract some of the negative effects of isolation.

If you’re housebound with family members, roommates, a partner, or a pet, don’t neglect those relationships. It’s easy to get tired of each other or forget to make time to spend together. Set aside time every week to hang out, talk, or just enjoy each other’s company. This can do wonders for our loneliness.

Finally, once all this social distancing comes to an end, don’t forget the lessons we’re learning this year about how important our social connections and interactions are. At the end of the day, they’re one of the most meaningful aspects of living—and they just might (literally) save your life.