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Social isolation is the complete or near-complete lack of contact between an individual and society. It differs from loneliness, which reflects a temporary lack of contact with other humans. Social isolation can be an issue for individuals of any age, though symptoms may differ by age group.
Social isolation has similar characteristics in both temporary instances and for those with an historical lifelong isolation cycle. All types of social isolation can include staying home for lengthy periods of time, having no communication with family, acquaintances or friends, or willfully avoiding any contact with other humans when those opportunities do arise.
The day to day aspects of this type of deep-rooted social isolation can mean:
- staying home for days or even weeks at a time due to lack of access to social situations rather than a desire to be alone;
- both not contacting, and not being contacted by, any acquaintances, even peripherally; for example, never being called by anybody on the telephone and never having anyone visit one's residence;
- a lack of meaningful, extended relationships, and especially close intimacy (both emotional and physical).
True social isolation over years and decades can be a chronic condition affecting all aspects of a person's existence. Social isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness, fear of others, or negative self-esteem. Lack of consistent human contact can also cause conflict with the (peripheral) friends the socially isolated person may occasionally talk to or cause problems with family members.
Social isolation also affects the community, especially when it involves the elderly. In the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom, for example, a significant sector of the elderly who are in their 80s and 90s are brought to nursing homes if they show severe signs of social isolation. Other societies such as many in East Asia, and also the Caribbean (like Jamaica) and South America, do not normally share the tendency towards admission to nursing homes, preferring instead to have children and extended-family of elderly parents take care of those elderly parents until their deaths.
Social isolation is both a potential cause and a symptom of emotional or psychological challenges. As a cause, the perceived inability to interact with the world and others can create an escalating pattern of these challenges. As a symptom, periods of isolation can be chronic or episodic, depending upon any cyclical changes in mood, especially in the case of clinical depression.
In the case of mood-related isolation, the individual may isolate during a depressive episode only to 'surface' when their mood improves. The individual may attempt to justify their reclusive or isolating behavior as enjoyable or comfortable. There can be an inner realization on the part of the individual that there is something wrong with their isolating responses which can lead to heightened anxiety. Relationships can be a struggle: the individual 'reconnects' with others during a healthier mood episode only to have it dashed during a subsequent low or depressed mood where they will isolate.
Isolation can increase feelings of loneliness and depression, fear of other people, or create a negative self-image. There is a realization in the individual that their isolating is not 'normal behavior' and can create the feeling that there is a whole world going on to which they do not belong or are unable to be a part of.
Substance abuse can also be an element in isolation, whether a cause or a result. This can and many times does coincide with mood related disorders, but also with loneliness. According to a study that was conducted by Kimmo Herttua, Pekka Martikainen, Jussi Vahtera, and Mika Kivimäki, living alone can increase rates of being socially isolated and leading individuals to turn to the use of alcohol and other substances.
Social isolation can begin early in life. An example would be a sensitive child who finds him or herself bullied or ridiculed. During this time of development, a person may become more preoccupied with feelings and thoughts of their individuality that are not easy to share with other individuals. This can result from feelings of shame, guilt, or alienation during childhood experiences.
Whether new technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones exacerbate social isolation (of any origin) is a debated topic among sociologists. With the advent of online social networking communities, there are increasing options to become involved with social activities that do not require real-world physical interaction. Chat rooms, message boards, and other types of communities can meet the needs of those who would rather be alone, yet still develop communities of online friends.
Social isolation can also coincide with developmental disabilities. Individuals with learning impairments may have trouble with social interaction. The difficulties experienced academically can greatly impact the individual's esteem and sense of self-worth. An example would be the need to repeat a year of school (this does not occur in many countries—for this very reason). During the early childhood developmental years, the need to fit in and be accepted is paramount. Having a learning deficit can in turn lead to feelings of isolation, that they are somehow 'different' from others.
The elderly have a unique set of isolating dynamics. Increasing frailty, possible declines in overall health, absent or uninvolved relatives or children, economic struggles can all add to the feeling of isolation. Among the elderly, childlessness can be a cause for social isolation. Whether their child is deceased or they didn't have children at all, the loneliness that comes from not having a child can cause social isolation. Retirement, the abrupt end of daily work relationships, the death of close friends or spouses can also contribute to social isolation.
The loss of a loved one can contribute to social isolation. For example, if an individual loses a spouse, they are likely to lose their primary social support. They now must find some other kind of support to help them through this fragile time. Studies have shown that widows who keep in contact with friends or relatives have better psychological health. A study conducted by Jung-Hwal Ha and Berit Ingersoll-Dayton concluded that widows who had a lot of social contact and interactions lead to fewer depressive symptoms. During a time of loss social isolation is not beneficial to an individual's mental health.
Although objective social isolation can affect perceived social isolation (loneliness), it is perceived isolation that is more closely related to the quality than quantity of social interactions. This is in part because loneliness is influenced by factors unrelated to objective isolation, including genetics, childhood environment, cultural norms, social needs, physical disabilities, and discrepancies between actual and desired relationships. Accordingly, perceived social isolation predicts various outcomes above and beyond what is predicted by objective isolation. Research by Cole and colleagues showed that perceived social isolation is associated with gene expression — specifically, the under-expression of genes bearing anti-inflammatory glucocorticoid response elements and over-expression of genes bearing response elements for pro-inflammatory NF-κB/Rel transcription factors. This finding is paralleled by decreased lymphocyte sensitivity to physiological regulation by the hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical (HPA) axis in lonely individuals, which together with evidence of increased activity of the HPA axis, suggests the development of glucocorticoid resistance in chronically lonely individuals.
Throughout the past three decades social isolation has increased, causing family interaction and communication to decrease.
- Family violence – perpetrator uses social isolation as a means of controlling their victim 
- Health and disabilities – People may be embarrassed by their disabilities or health issues such that they have a tendency to isolate themselves to avoid social interaction out of fear that they would be judged or stigmatised.
- Loss of a spouse – Once a spouse has died, the other person may feel lonely and depressed.
- Living alone.
- Aging – Once a person reaches an age where issues such as cognitive impairments and disabilities arise, they are unable to go out and socialise.
- Transport issues – If the person doesn't have transport to attend gatherings or to simply get out of the house, they have no choice but to stay home all day which can lead to those feelings of depression.
- Societal adversity – Desire to avoid the discomfort, dangers, and responsibilities arising from being among people. This can happen if other people are sometimes, or often, rude, hostile, critical or judgmental, crude, or otherwise unpleasant. The person would just prefer to be alone to avoid the hassles and hardships of dealing with people. There are some cases when not even seeing the sun long enough each day will affect them; by the time they try to go out and play, heart attacks and heat strokes are more common.
According to James House, when it comes to physical illness, "The magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors. However, our understanding of how and why social isolation is risky for health — or conversely — how and why social ties and relationships are protective of health, still remains quite limited."
The research of Brummett shows that social isolation is unrelated to a wide range of measures of demographic factors, disease severity, physical functioning, and psychological distress. Hence, such factors cannot account for or explain the substantial deleterious effects of social isolation.
However, they also show that isolated individuals report fewer interactions with others, fewer sources of psychological/emotional and instrumental support, and lower levels of religious activity. The obvious question is whether adjusting for one or more of these factors reduces the association of social relationships/isolation with health, and which factors constitute the active ingredient in social isolation producing its deleterious effects on health.
There are things people can do to help those who are socially isolated. According to Boufford, "many cities, with encouragement from the World Health Organisation, are developing age-friendly initiatives for all seniors, regardless of their location. Specifically, they seek to improve transportation, housing, social inclusion, community support and health services." In addition, paying attention to the person who is socially isolated can make a difference. Taking a day to spend time with someone can change their perspective on life.
A common sense notion frequently expressed is that social relationships beneficially affect health, not only because of their supportiveness, but also because of the social control that others exercise over a person, especially by encouraging health-promoting behaviours such as adequate sleep, diet, exercise, and compliance with medical regimens or by discouraging health-damaging behaviors such as smoking, excessive eating, alcohol abuse, or drug abuse. Another hypothesis is that social ties link people with diffuse social networks that facilitate access to a wide range of resources supportive of health, such as medical referral networks, access to others dealing with similar problems, or opportunities to acquire needed resources via jobs, shopping, or financial institutions. These effects are different from support in that they are less a function of the nature of immediate social ties but rather of the ties these immediate ties provide to other people. Also, social isolation can sometimes go hand in hand with mental illness because of behaviours mentioned beforehand.
Yet another hypothesis proposed by Cacioppo and colleagues is that the isolation of a member of social species has detrimental biological effects. In a 2009 review, Cacioppo and Hawkley noted that the health, life, and genetic legacy of members of social species are threatened when they find themselves on the social perimeter. For instance, social isolation decreases lifespan in the fruit fly; promotes obesity and Type 2 diabetes in mice; exacerbates infarct size and oedema and decreases post-stroke survival rate following experimentally induced stroke in mice; promotes activation of the sympatho-adrenomedullary response to an acute immobilisation or cold stressor in rats; delays the effects of exercise on adult neurogenesis in rats; decreases open field activity, increases basal cortisol concentrations, and decreases lymphocyte proliferation to mitogens in pigs; increases the 24 hr urinary catecholamines levels and evidence of oxidative stress in the aortic arch of rabbits; and decreases the expression of genes regulating glucocorticoid response in the frontal cortex of piglets.
A person showing the following signs may be socially isolated: depression, mental disorder, mood disorder, inability to connect with others, refusal to leave the house, and avoiding people in addition to being anxious, nervous and keeping the door closed to lessen the ability of others to reach them.
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