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Your Brain Is Changed by Social Isolation

Teens and seniors can be hit hard by seclusion, which may change the brain.

Key points

  • When living in community, there is natural support and less isolation.
  • We need to reach out to lonely seniors and teens who could be at risk for brain changes from isolation.
  • COVID-19 precautions should remain, yet there is a happy medium—we need to find a way to socially engage while still being cautious.
Source: 16391475/Pixabay
Source: 16391475/Pixabay

We humans are wired to be social, and many of us had difficulties during the lockdowns and seclusion of the pandemic caused by COVID-19. Loneliness, malaise, and feelings of isolation were experienced by many when public health protocols required us to avoid groups. But seclusion may have also caused brain damage, as it has been demonstrated that social isolation can change our brains.

Seniors are at risk for Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders involving cognition after being isolated. And teen brains may also be affected by a lack of social interaction—a Stanford study showed that teens’ brains aged abnormally during the pandemic. While the study doesn’t prove that the brain injury was due to isolation, it may have been a likely contributor.

Even before the pandemic, American adults, especially seniors, were living alone more than in past decades. Communities have changed over the last several centuries, and, because of this, more American adults live alone and can be socially isolated.

Society has moved toward isolation.

In the American agrarian society of the 1800s, there might have been some social isolation in farmers, usually male, who oversaw large tracts of land and, as such, did not encounter many humans on a day-to-day basis. However, the typically male farmer usually had a female wife and often a large family. Even if the farmer was isolated during the day, he would gather with his family members for dinner and then meet up with others over the weekend in the town.

The farmer knew he could access social capital in his community. He would not be isolated and could often find connections he trusted to help him with key decisions. Social capital norms include reciprocity, so if a farmer were to ask for help, he would be obliged to give help back. He was not isolated despite not living close to another farmer.

During the Industrial Revolution, humans came together in cities or towns to work in factories. At that time, workers might not have lived with their biological families, but it was common for them to be in rooming houses or dormitories where a group meal was provided every day.

Fast forward to the current day, where we are in the Information Age. Exciting as it may be to have access to all sorts of facts and data, such access isn’t sufficient for a healthy life. We need human contact and human touch to stay healthy—especially to keep our brains in top shape.

Brain changes can occur from solitude.

There are consequences to having few connections and minimal human interactions. People over the age of 55 and teens are especially at risk for brain changes due to solitude. In a recent longitudinal study on people in the United Kingdom with an average age of 57, researchers discovered that those who were considered socially isolated (defined as living alone, having less than monthly social contact, and having less than weekly participation in social activities) had a 26 percent increased risk of dementia after 12 years. Those deemed socially isolated showed lower gray-matter brain volume in some portions of the brain, especially the temporal, frontal, and hippocampal regions.

Since it is difficult to do human brain research, we can extrapolate from studies on mice who are social animals like humans. Adolescent mice who are socially isolated show abnormal brain changes. Changes seem to persist, to some extent, even with re-socialization. A recent study of 163 human adolescents showed that those isolated during the shutdowns had brain abnormalities in the hippocampal and amygdala areas. While these changes cannot be completely attributed to the pandemic isolation, teens being away from their peers during this crucial time of brain growth was a likely contributor to brain damage.

How can we help?

After necessary isolation during lockdowns to prevent COVID-19, how do we emerge to interact again without putting ourselves at risk for this unpredictable virus? How can we support our isolated seniors and teens who didn’t have crucial social activity for a few years?

We can all help our relatives and connections mitigate this damage by providing friendship and support. And, if you have been a hermit for the past two and a half years, you may want to step carefully into the world a bit—you can find ways to socialize while being careful to avoid infectious diseases.

Social support and interaction can strengthen the brain. One study found that one’s brain’s prefrontal cortex relates to size of one’s social group. Another study showed less amygdala volume with social support (which is positive) and higher volume with stress. Social interaction via technology can have good effects and may have protected some of the teens during the worst of the isolation of the last few years.

We can teach seniors how to use social media and, as such, maybe help diminish the brain damage due to isolation. A recent review of studies related to seniors and use of technology showed that seniors using technology can stay connected.

And, yet, social media connections are imperfect. Teens are vulnerable to loneliness despite having many social media applications on their smartphones. Dawn Fallik, a medical reporter and associate professor at the University of Delaware, was awarded a journalism grant to look at loneliness. Her project is titled “Generation Lonely: 10,000 Followers and No Friends,” and she has noted that younger folks are more lonely than in the past generations, even with access to social media.

Interestingly, some scientists have found a fascinating solution: using a hormonal spray to deliver oxytocin to people, simulating the hormonal surge one might get from social interaction. However, finding a chemical solution to the problem isn’t as pleasant as getting the good effects from socialization naturally.

So, this holiday season, find some time to be with loved ones (even if you have to wear a mask) and be alert to the seniors and teens you know who may be isolated. Your prefrontal cortex (and the rest of your brain) will thank you!