Heightened fears and the stress of social distancing and isolation may negatively impact the health of millions of Americans who are already feeling burdened by the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic. And some health experts believe that such impacts might even leave certain people more susceptible to infection by the coronavirus.
Research in the emerging field of social genomics has found that chronic social isolation and loneliness can alter gene activity in ways that inhibit an individual’s antiviral response while increasing their risk of diseases such as arteriosclerosis, cancer, and dementia over the long term.1 But there’s no data yet on the effects of short-term isolation related to social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
“A lot depends on the timing and the psychology,” says Steve Cole, professor of medicine and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
His research, supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), examines how psychological experiences—including prolonged social isolation, a lifetime of poverty, and constant fear for one’s safety—can influence our immune systems and, in turn, our health.
Cole has examined the immune-response genes of socially isolated and chronically lonely people, exploring why they got sick and died faster when they contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He and his colleagues found that the fight-or-flight stress response is highly activated among chronically lonely people, triggering the expression of genes involved in inflammation while suppressing the activity of genes governing the virus-fighting Type I interferon system.2 This inflammatory response to loneliness may have evolved in early humans, enabling those separated from their tribe or social group to heal from injuries sustained without group protection, he explains.
But the fight-or-flight stress response is “a double-edge sword,” says Cole, noting that while it can help steer our immune system “toward inflammatory responses that kill bacteria,” inflammation also “fuels the growth of some other slow-brewing illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, and many types of cancer.”
Stress and Fear Can Dampen Antiviral Responses
Sustained fear and insecurity also trigger that fight-or-flight stress response, according to Cole. “The body doesn’t care what we’re afraid of—fear of the virus or fear of rejection by others, as is common in lonely people. Either type of fear will still stimulate our inflammation system, suppress our interferon system, and mess with a wide range of other physiologic systems we need to keep us healthy.”
While it is too early for studies related to the current pandemic, Cole offers what we do know about other types of coronaviruses. “Fight-or-flight stress physiology strongly suppresses the Type I interferon system, which is the body’s first line of defense against viral infections of all types. Coronaviruses are highly vulnerable to our Type I interferon responses, and it stands to reason that any stress-induced suppression of that system would leave us more vulnerable to this type of virus.”
It would be particularly tragic, he notes, if the stress of social distancing makes us more vulnerable to infection if we are exposed, even as it reduces our likelihood of exposure in the first place.
Short-Term Loneliness Is Unlikely to Make a Lasting Difference to Health
The good news is that a few weeks or months of being home alone is unlikely to noticeably affect a person’s health over the long term. The inflammation that hardens arteries and contributes to a heart attack takes many decades to build up, for example.
“The loneliness people feel after a move to a new town or the end of a romantic relationship is generally transient,” Cole says. “Any short-term change in our physiology would probably not significantly impact the long-term development of chronic illnesses like heart disease or cancer.”
Loneliness makes us focus on ourselves but redirecting that focus outward… can change our outlook, our brains, and our body chemistry.
Doing Good For Others Can Help Us Stay Healthy
Cole and his colleagues have identified a surprising way to dampen stress-related inflammation and bolster the body’s virus-fighting capacity in chronically lonely people—altruism and purpose.3
“Loneliness makes us focus on ourselves,” he explains. “But redirecting that focus outward, toward helping others or some other self-transcendent purpose, can change our outlook, our brains, and our body chemistry.”
Older volunteers mentoring elementary school students experienced such immune system benefits. That’s according to a study led by Teresa Seeman, UCLA epidemiology professor and co-director of the UCLA and University of Southern California Center on Biodemography and Population Health.4 Those who reported the greatest increases in their sense of life purpose and meaning during the study also showed the greatest reduction in inflammation and increase in antiviral response.
During the current pandemic, focusing attention on how our own social distancing is protecting the common good and checking in on others by telephone or video conference could “very likely” counter some of the negative effects of stress and fear, says Cole.
And mounting evidence suggests that a variety of strategies—including mindfulness practices, yoga, tai chi, cognitive-behavioral stress management techniques (such as anxiety reduction, thought substitution, and coping skills), and certain drugs—can also alter the fight-or-flight signaling that increases inflammation and dampens antiviral responses, according to Cole.5
Prolonged Economic Insecurity, Poverty, and Grief Can Affect Health
What concerns Cole most right now is the potential for deepening poverty and widespread economic insecurity—particularly if unemployment persists and an economic recession takes hold. The long-term stress of living in poverty “gets under the skin,” “weathers” people, and sets them up for a host of chronic diseases at older ages, he and his colleagues find based on nationally representative Health and Retirement Study data.6
Bereavement—such as the unexpected loss of a loved one due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus—is also known to worsen heart problems and raise mortality risks.7
Research on the health effects of the 2008 recession may provide clues on what to expect during the economic downturn that many are predicting in the wake of the current pandemic. Seeman and colleagues documented a higher-than-expected rise in risk factors for heart disease and diabetes among Americans ages 45 and older following the global financial decline.8
The negative changes were most pronounced among those most likely to be affected by the economic downturn, including working-age adults and homeowners ages 65 and older “whose declining home wealth may have reduced their financial security, with less scope for recouping losses during their lifetime.” Least affected were older adults without a college degree; their reliance on Medicare and Social Security may have protected them, the researchers suggest.
Consider Spending More Time on Creative Activities
Older Americans may feel the effects of stay-at-home orders more acutely than other groups; 42% of those ages 65 and older lived alone in 2018, the largest share of any other U.S. age group.9
Those isolating themselves at home may be better off limiting television viewing and spending more time on mentally stimulating activities such as reading, carpentry, gardening, and crafting. That’s the advice of a University of Michigan researcher who studies older adults and the connections among their health, satisfaction with life, loneliness, and time use with NIA funding.10
“Spending the whole day alone listening to a constant stream of bad news is clearly not good for anyone,” says Jacqui Smith, a professor affiliated with the Michigan Center for the Demography of Aging and Institute of Social Research.
Television is passive, Smith points out. Activities that involve more social, mental, and physical engagement contribute the most to the positive side of adults’ daily emotional balance sheets, her work shows.11
This line of research, known to academics as subjective well-being, looks beyond traditional measures of physical and cognitive health to examine how older people evaluate and experience their daily lives. Researchers are finding that people who report that their lives are full of meaning and purpose tend be physically healthier and live longer than people who do not, as are those who report their day-to-day experience as largely positive and satisfying.12
For older adults confined at home by social distancing, Smith’s research underscores the positive health effects of phone conversations with friends and family, and exercise such as walks or stretching at home—activities that could benefit us all during the coronavirus pandemic, at any age.
Stay informed, Smith says, but spend more time on activities that “absorb your attention so fully that you lose track of time,” such as crafts, baking, or reading.