As cities and states slowly reopen their economies and ease back on social distancing regulations, many Americans are skipping the rush back to restaurants and gyms to stay home instead, their isolation stretching into a third month. They’re doing so because they are elderly, medically vulnerable, skeptical of their government’s reopening plans or just too afraid to venture back out into society.
For those quarantining alone, that means even more time spent pacing around their homes. They’re devising new ways to entertain themselves and trying anything to ward off the depression that invariably bubbles up.
Experts are worried about the collective toll of all that loneliness.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, says it’s been long established that loneliness can lead to a wide variety of mental – and even physical – ailments that can cut short people’s lives. She and others have shown how long-term loneliness can lead to cognitive decline, speed up dementia, increase blood pressure, weaken immune functionality and increase inflammation, culminating in earlier deaths.
Part of the reason is that humans are hard-wired to be around other humans. From the moment of birth, humans are one of the most vulnerable species on the planet, completely dependent on adults for survival. That dependency carries through into adulthood, when the brain is so accustomed to being enveloped by a social network that it goes into a state of alert when nobody else is around.
“We are not meant to be alone,” said Holt-Lunstad, who joined a team of international researchers to study how quickly the forced isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people. “That state of alert, if it is prolonged, puts wear and tear on our bodies. The reason it feels unpleasant is it’s a biological signal, much like hunger and thirst, to motivate us to reconnect with others.”
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