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Besides Feelings Of Loneliness, What Else Does Isolation Do To Us?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have entered a season when some people are getting out more. Some are back at work as states reopen. People here in Washington grab the outdoor seats at restaurants. Thousands attend protests. But because the coronavirus remains, the most vulnerable must remain isolated month after month, which is especially hard for millions living alone. Vital though their isolation is for public health, researchers say it carries health risks.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Consider Paul Westerman of western Kentucky. He's a World War II veteran. He's 100 years old. He is alone except for the nurses in the veterans home where he lives. He's even separated from his wife of 76 years because she's in hospice care. Our MORNING EDITION colleague Ashley Westerman is one of his grandkids, and she found out that she could visit with him only through a window outside.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Here we are, the Western Kentucky Veterans Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

A WESTERMAN: Hi.

All right. So I'm up at the window, and the nurse is going to give me a call.

Hello?

PAUL WESTERMAN: How you doing?

A WESTERMAN: Hi, Grandpa. How are you?

P WESTERMAN: And you're looking well.

A WESTERMAN: Thank you.

P WESTERMAN: It's sure nice to see one of you 'cause, you know, they're quarantining us from everybody. So I'm pretty lonesome (laughter).

A WESTERMAN: They're just trying to keep you safe.

P WESTERMAN: Yeah (laughter). How have y'all been doing over there?

A WESTERMAN: We're doing OK. I'm living in the basement right now.

P WESTERMAN: Yeah.

A WESTERMAN: But everyone is healthy. Grandma says hi.

P WESTERMAN: I wish I could get out there. I think if they went to work on that disease - all over the world could be working on it, be trying different things on it. You know?

A WESTERMAN: Well, they are. They're working on it. They're going as fast as they can. We just have to be patient, unfortunately.

P WESTERMAN: Yeah. It's sure good to see you for just a little bit. Appreciate you coming.

A WESTERMAN: It's good to see you, too.

P WESTERMAN: Tell them all a hello for me.

A WESTERMAN: All right. I've got to go. It's cold out here (laughter).

P WESTERMAN: (Laughter).

A WESTERMAN: I'll talk to you in a little bit, all right? I love you.

P WESTERMAN: Yeah. I do, too, you, hon. Sure appreciate it.

A WESTERMAN: Bye, Grandpa.

INSKEEP: Our colleague Ashley Westerman looking through a window at her grandfather Paul Westerman in isolation in western Kentucky.

Now, what does isolation do to us? Julianne Holt-Lunstad's research at Brigham Young University underlines a basic reality.

JULIANNE HOLT-LUNSTAD: As humans, we are social species. We're meant to be around other people.

INSKEEP: And it affects our health when we're not. Holt-Lunstad spoke very carefully. She does not want people to abandon social distancing and go hug someone. But she says isolation affects some people's heart rate, blood pressure, stress and immune systems.

HOLT-LUNSTAD: In fact, there's some some research out of Carnegie Mellon that has shown that people who are more socially connected have stronger immune responses and are more able to fight off a cold virus, and those that are less socially connected are less able to fight off the cold virus and are more susceptible, also, to respiratory illnesses.

INSKEEP: You know, once in a while, I read an account of someone who lived alone for a while, and they will comment on the power of touch or the power of not touching anyone for a long time.

HOLT-LUNSTAD: Yeah. Some of the classic research has shown that infants and young children in custodial care that lacked human contact failed to thrive and even were more likely to die. And in some of my own research, we've found that close physical contact has been linked to the neuropeptide oxytocin, which has been linked to social bonding and stress regulation.

INSKEEP: Listening to you, I'm feeling like you're describing human contact almost like a vitamin or an aspect of the diet. You know, if you're not getting a vitamin or you're not getting any protein, that probably isn't a problem for a week or maybe even a month. But after a while, it becomes a real problem.

HOLT-LUNSTAD: There is an interesting study done by MIT where they found that going without food for 10 hours showed a similar neural signature as being isolated for 10 hours, suggesting that these cravings for others - you know, for human contact - may have a real biological basis to it.

INSKEEP: Can social isolation actually kill you?

HOLT-LUNSTAD: Absolutely. We have good data that it increases our risk of earlier death from all causes. So some of my research, including data from over 3.4 million participants worldwide, found that loneliness was associated with an increased risk of earlier death by 26%, social isolation by 29% and living alone by 32%. And the overall magnitude of this effect on mortality is comparable with the risk associated with obesity and exceeds that of physical inactivity and even air pollution.

INSKEEP: What are some practical things that people could do to help themselves out of this situation, to mitigate the harm that they're facing?

HOLT-LUNSTAD: The first thing that people can do is to really nurture their existing relationships by maintaining those connections as much as possible, so whether that's virtually by video chats or telephone calls or connecting with the people who are around you from a safe distance - talking to neighbors across the street or across a balcony. And then also there's some evidence around creative expression not just, you know, painting a painting or performing music but writing, cooking - that these can help reduce feelings of loneliness and the distress associated with loneliness as well.

INSKEEP: Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University has researched the risks of social isolation. If it's any comfort, it is a problem that millions of us - or people close to us - can learn about and face together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.