Tag Archives: social isolation

Loneliness is making us physically sick, but social prescribing can treat it – podcast

Social isolation and loneliness are increasingly becoming societal problems, as they contribute to polarization and affect our physical health. Mental health professionals, community advocates and health-care providers have been raising the alarm about this impending crisis.

The pandemic may have exacerbated social isolation and the subsequent feelings of loneliness, but it did not invent it. In 2018, two years before the pandemic, the United Kingdom created a ministerial portfolio for loneliness. Japan, where nearly 40 per cent of the population report experiencing loneliness, began a similar position in 2021.

In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we speak to three researchers who invite us to more deeply consider loneliness and social isolation, and their impacts on our health and society.

Ananya Chakravarti is an associate professor of history at Georgetown University in Washington in the U.S. As a historian of emotions, Chakravarti has studied expressions of loneliness in Indian devotional poetry.

“If you read the poetry, it’s often expressing a deep and acute pain. Of course, it’s within that sense of being separated from the beloved that the world opens up spiritually for the devotee. So it’s an interesting kind of experience, in that sense of torment caused through separation.”

In studying the history of loneliness, Chakravarti has found as opposed to the loneliness of choosing solitude for religious or creative purposes, today’s loneliness is a product of our modern lives.

“We seem to live in this highly globalized world,” she points out, and “there’s so many more ways to be connected. Travel is so much easier. You have social media. And yet, actual experiences of loneliness are probably very much on the rise if you look at the cultural production around loneliness as a very modern phenomenon.”

It’s this modern loneliness that is having a significant impact on our health.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in the U.S., has studied the impacts of loneliness on people’s health.

“Being alone can activate these kinds of responses in our brain — and ultimately our bodies — that are associated with the threat response. And so we’re more hyper-vigilant to threats in our environment, as well as having to, in essence, handle every challenge in our life on our own. Our brains have to be more active, and this requires more metabolic resources.”

This stress response triggers an inflammatory response which, over time, can contribute to conditions including cardiovascular disease and cognitive health.

Read more:
Social isolation linked to higher levels of inflammation – new study

Social isolation is the absence of meaningful social connections, and so addressing its effects is not as simple as being around others. It requires building relationships of trust, belonging and support.

The World Health Organization has identified social isolation as a social determinant of health, finding its impact to be “comparable to that of other well-established risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity,” especially for the elderly.

Kate Mulligan, an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in Canada, advocates for a health-care approach called social prescribing to address the health effects of loneliness.

“Social prescribing is a way to use health care visits to reconnect people with nonclinical supports, community supports, that improve their health and well-being,” she explains.

While it is a new approach, it’s firmly rooted in evidence that connecting people to others can help address some of their health-care needs.

“Harm reduction communities have led by example and shown that peer workers create that welcoming environment in a way that is meaningful for people who use drugs.”

But the impacts of loneliness are not just physical. Loneliness can create a feedback loop that increases polarization within society.

Holt-Lunstad points out that “there’s vulnerability in terms of others that are not trusted. And so it may be considered very natural to want to have alliances and allegiances to your own group and to distrust other groups. And this unfortunately has led to a very common us-versus-them mentality, where people are isolating themselves within their groups of like-minded people.”

And while loneliness is experienced on an individual level, it is caused by much larger structural problems. As Chakravarti points out, “if we don’t address it or think about this as a social problem, as a social challenge as opposed to an individual affliction, we’re going to not be able to address it.”

Listen to the full episode of The Conversation Weekly to find out more.

This episode of The Conversation Weekly was produced and written by Nehal El-Hadi and Mend Mariwany, who is also the show’s executive producer. Sound design is by Eloise Stevens, and our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. Music used in this episodes includes Duduk Music by Buddha’s Lounge.

You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at @theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free emails here. A transcript of this episode will be available soon.

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Nehal El-Hadi

Daniel Merino

Ananya Chakravarti

Julianne Holt-Lunstad

Kate Mulligan

The Conversation

Kick up your heels – ballroom dancing offers benefits to the aging brain and could help stave off dementia

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

Social ballroom dancing can improve cognitive functions and reduce brain atrophy in older adults who are at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. That’s the key finding of my team’s recently published study in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity.

In our study, we enrolled 25 adults over 65 years of age in either six months of twice-weekly ballroom dancing classes or six months of twice-weekly treadmill walking classes. None of them were engaged in formal dancing or other exercise programs.

The overall goal was to see how each experience affected cognitive function and brain health.

While none of the study volunteers had a dementia diagnosis, all performed a bit lower than expected on at least one of our dementia screening tests. We found that older adults that completed six months of social dancing and those that completed six months of treadmill walking improved their executive functioning – an umbrella term for planning, reasoning and processing tasks that require attention.

Dancing, however, generated significantly greater improvements than treadmill walking on one measure of executive function and on processing speed, which is the time it takes to respond to or process information. Compared with walking, dancing was also associated with reduced brain atrophy in the hippocampus – a brain region that is key to memory functioning and is particularly affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers also know that this part of our brain can undergo neurogenesis – or grow new neurons – in response to aerobic exercise.

While several previous studies suggest that dancing has beneficial effects on cognitive function in older adults, only a few studies have compared it directly with traditional exercises. Our study is the first to observe both better cognitive function and improved brain health following dancing than walking in older adults at risk for dementia. We think that social dancing may be more beneficial than walking because it is physically, socially and cognitively demanding – and therefore strengthens a wide network of brain regions.

While dancing, you’re not only using brain regions that are important for physical movement. You’re also relying on brain regions that are important for interacting and adapting to the movements of your dancing partner, as well as those necessary for learning new dance steps or remembering those you’ve learned already.

Nearly 6 million older adults in the U.S. and 55 million worldwide have Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia, yet there is no cure. Sadly, the efficacy and ethics surrounding recently developed drug treatments are still under debate.

The good news is that older adults can potentially lower their risk for dementia through lifestyle interventions, even later in life. These include reducing social isolation and physical inactivity.

Social ballroom dancing targets both isolation and inactivity. In these later stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, a better understanding of the indirect effects of COVID-19 – particularly those that increase dementia risk, such as social isolation – is urgently needed. In my view, early intervention is critical to prevent dementia from becoming the next pandemic.
Social dancing could be a particularly timely way to overcome the adverse cognitive and brain effects associated with isolation and fewer social interactions during the pandemic.

Traditional aerobic exercise interventions such as treadmill-walking or running have been shown to lead to modest but reliable improvements in cognition – particularly in executive function.

My team’s study builds on that research and provides preliminary evidence that not all exercise is equal when it comes to brain health. Yet our sample size was quite small, and larger studies are needed to confirm these initial findings. Additional studies are also needed to determine the optimal length, frequency and intensity of dancing classes that may result in positive changes.

Lifestyle interventions like social ballroom dancing are a promising, noninvasive and cost-effective path toward staving off dementia as we – eventually – leave the COVID-19 pandemic behind.

Helena Blumen

The Conversation

This course teaches students how to connect with older adults to forge intergenerational bonds and help alleviate loneliness and isolation

Uncommon Courses is an occasional series from The Conversation U.S. highlighting unconventional approaches to teaching.

“Legacy Building with Older Adults – Students Re-Humanizing Health Care”

In March 2020 – as the COVID-19 pandemic was causing widespread lockdowns across the U.S. – I heard from a chaplain friend about older adults who were dying in assisted living facilities and skilled nursing homes indirectly because of social isolation and loneliness.

I was finishing my dissertation, focused on developing a curriculum to assist underrepresented and underserved university students. But after hearing about the needs of older adults, I was moved to do something to help them.

So I shifted my focus and geared my curriculum toward bridging the needs of older adults, who are also often underserved, with young people who are learning the principles of health care.

I developed the concept and then piloted it at my alma mater, the University of Toledo, with counseling and pre-med students. I then further developed it to be suitable for a course aimed at connecting university students in health-care-related fields with older adults who may feel isolated and alone.

This course covers issues in social and cultural determinants of health. Social determinants of health are the conditions in the environments where people live, play, work, attend community events – and where they age. These environments can influence what decisions people make, and the decisions they make can affect a wide range of health and quality-of-life results.

Students in this course connect with older adults once a week, for one hour, in person, via phone or through virtual visits. Throughout the course, students receive training materials in growth mindset, resiliency, mindfulness and goal-setting both for themselves and for the older adults. Students are also trained in reminiscence therapy, which is an approach to help students guide or support the older adult, reaffirming the value of the adults’ stories as they reminisce.

The sessions that involve discussions between students and older adults focus on building rapport and connecting. They also allow for an older adult to impart wisdom and share stories of their past with the students. At the end of the sessions, the older adult participants receive a digital or physical book – which I call a legacy book – that summarizes the stories the older adult shared with the student, to help reinforce that their story matters.

One of the most profound lessons from the pandemic has been that staying connected is important for one’s health.

Emerging research shows how social isolation and loneliness before and during the COVID-19 pandemic are correlated with many physical and mental health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, dementia, anxiety, depression and suicide.

Researchers estimate that health issues caused by isolation and loneliness increase the risk of early death by 26% and have been equated to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. One of the major ways to build a foundation for addressing isolation and loneliness is building connection between generations.

Many older adults said the most valuable part of the program for them was the relationship and friendship they developed with their legacy builder. One older adult reported back that it was uplifting to know that she could communicate well with the younger generation, and that she is now more confident in talking with her young adult grandchildren.

Older adults can also learn new technology skills from their legacy builder. Many have started texting for the first time and learned how to send pictures via text. Another learned from her legacy builder to create a Facebook account for herself, and she now stays connected with the student through Facebook.

The critical lesson that I hope students take away from the course is that every person has value, and it is worthwhile to listen to the person’s stories to understand what they value and why it matters so much.

I want students to learn how they can reinforce the strengths and self-efficacy in another individual by valuing their stories and lived experiences. I also want health care students in particular to understand that those they serve are the experts of their own lived experiences and have a story worth listening to. On top of that, each person has something to be learned from the other. Ultimately, both leave the conversation feeling edified and uplifted.

The content mainly focuses on communication and listening skills, with mindfulness, growth mindset and goal-setting strategies. Emphasis is placed on gaining skills in interviewing, connection and building rapport.

The course will prepare students to treat the people they serve and care for as human beings, whether or not the student enters the health care field.

We all are children of someone. We all have birthdays. I believe we all deserve to live a life with a sense of dignity, respect and honor. We all need connection, and, whether it be in health care or everyday life, this is a skill that must not be left out of the curriculum.

Jeremy Holloway

The Conversation