Humans are social animals and the effects of being isolated from other people can be extreme and traumatic. One of the most extreme cases of isolation may be that suffered by prisoners put in solitary confinement, who have been known to suffer severe psychological problems due to their experience. However, isolation is also felt by a lot of people who are free in the world but do not have much contact with people. This can include the elderly and people suffering from depression.
Anxiety, aggression, forgetfulness and hallucinations are common psychological effects of isolation in humans. These symptoms has been observed in prisoners kept in solitary confinement units. Hospitalized patients put in isolated units were also found to suffer most of these symptoms, even if they are not critically ill. A study performed by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine found that socially isolated mice, who react similarly to isolated humans, experienced a drop of the enzyme 5-alpha-reductase type 1. The scientists theorized that this causes psychological effects by disrupting the neural circuitry that leads to the amygdala - a part of the brain associated with stress.
Decreased Life Expectancy
Isolation has been shown to decrease the life expectancy of humans. This is particularly notable in people who already have health problems like coronary heart disease. Director of the Survey Research Centre and Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan James House wrote in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine that the health risks of isolation could be caused by two things. It may be that psychological effects of isolation put stress on the body, or it may be that social relationships have a beneficial effect on health. However, research has not yet come to the conclusion on what exactly is the cause of decreased life expectancy in the socially isolated.
Alcoholism and Suicide
Social isolation has been found to be linked to a higher risk of alcoholism and suicide. Psychology Today reported on the findings of numerous studies conducted by John Cacioppo, psychologist at the University of Chicago, who found that suicide is more common among the socially isolated regardless of age. The magazine also stated that chronic loneliness can precede alcoholism and depression.
Social isolation can increase the risk of elderly people developing dementia, particularly if they are prone to stress. A 2009 study by Dr Hui-Xin of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found that individuals who are socially active and calm are less likely to suffer from dementia than socially active people who felt stressed easily. Meanwhile, isolated individuals who are calm are 50 per cent less likely to develop the condition than isolated people who are prone to distress. Dr Hui-Xin concluded that both isolation and stress increase the risk of dementia.