Over the last decade, studies have explored how loneliness, and even the perception of loneliness, could increase inflammation (which, when chronic, is the root cause of many diseases), and suppresses the body’s antiviral response.
With new Covid-19 lockdowns being implemented worldwide due to rising numbers of cases and hospital admissions, but with no guarantee of them ending soon, and with social distancing and self-isolation “here to stay”, even after the vaccine rollout, what effect can sustained-social isolation have on the body?
In a journal published on the National Centre for Biotechnology Information website, by Fulvio D’Acquisto, Professor of Immunology and Dr Alice Hamilton, postdoctoral research assistant at the Department of Cellular Medicine at the University of Dundee, the authors posit that:
“Whilst social distancing minimizes the spread of COVID-19, such social isolation has the potential to affect the cardiovascular and immune systems.”
The authors say that limited social interactions, such as during lockdowns, affects the body on a physiological, psychological and behavioural level, “and increase traditional risk factors and thus risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) itself”.
They say that “such people have an increased likelihood of depression, having a poor diet, being sedentary, and having increased blood pressure.”
As has been seen throughout Europe, the Government of Gibraltar put the Rock into a 14-day lockdown on the 2nd of January 2021, and although it is advised not to leave your home unless essential, you are permitted to take exercise outside.
The government has also been promoting its mental health liasion team to support those going through difficult times. The Mental Health Liaison Team (via Ocean Views Reception) can be contacted on: 20078807 and a 24 hour email service is available at firstname.lastname@example.org
The authors go on to say that chronic isolation “has been shown to increase inflammation and gene expression of antimicrobial signalling at the expense of the antiviral response” in animals.
To back this up, the authors point to studies involving socially isolated mice, primates and other animals have shown a “down regulation” of antiviral genes and well as higher levels of inflammation.
Research published by the American Psychological Association suggests that social isolation slowed the body’s immune response slightly more in male rats than in females.
An increasing body of evidence shows that chronic inflammation is associated with many common diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and arthritis.
The study continues that it is likely that during the period of lockdown and social distancing in Spring of 2020, “Technology is particularly beneficial to the elderly in reducing loneliness”, but that “high levels of technology usage led to increased loneliness” and that “physical, in-person social interactions were needed to reduce loneliness” for the general population.
The authors conclude: “It is clear that social distancing measures such as lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic will have subsequent effects on the body including the immune and cardiovascular systems, the extent of which will be dependent on the duration of such measures.”
The Roseto Mystery: Tight Community Shows Unusually Low Rates of Heart Disease
In contrast, perhaps the most interesting case of the health benefits of a highly social, family orientated, and close-knit community is that of the famous “Roseto Effect”.
In 1961, it was observed that a town in Pennsylvania called Roseto, which was made up entirely of Italian immigrants, had unusually low rates of heart disease when compared with other locations in America.
The low cases of heart disease were entirely contradictory to the lifestyles of the locals: they smoked, drank, ate copious amounts of fried processed meat in lard with soft cheeses and the men worked in salt quarries where they became sick from gas and dust.
Between 1954 and 1961, zero heart attacks were recorded in the “high risk” category of men between the ages of 55 and 64.
Dr Stewart Wolf, who was the head of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma in the 60’s, attributed the low heart disease rate to lower stress as a result of a close-knit community:
“There was no keeping up with the Joneses. Houses were very close together, and everyone lived more or less alike. Elders were revered and incorporated into community life. Housewives were respected, and fathers ran the families.”
Sadly, it was noted that as the people of Roseto began to move towards a more “Americanised” social structure, heart disease rates increased.
In the area of mental health, Clubhouse Gibraltar has strongly advocated that the term “social distancing” should be replaced by “physical distancing” with the message “Physical distancing is not social isolation,” a mission statement which appears so far to have had good results under the leadership of Emily Adamberry Olivero MBE.
As most of the West enters another lockdown in 2021, after months of social distancing, reduced physical contact, increased stress and curfews, with no end to restrictions in sight – is a strong sense of community the best way forward?