Loneliness can cause physical and chemical brain changes

by mcardinal

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 

A recent study shows that social isolation and loneliness can directly impact mental and physical health, leading to sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cognitive function.

The study from 2019 has found renewed meaning as the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns vastly altered how individuals interact with others. The rise of the remote workplace and online shopping alongside the decline of social interaction has resulted in more and more cases of loneliness and isolation which researchers found can alter the brain. 

The research was conducted by a team of German scientists and included eight crew members working at the Neumayer III station, which is located in Antarctica. The team wanted to evaluate if social isolation and environmental monotony can impact the plasticity of the brain.

The researchers followed the crew members for 14 months and compared them with a control group and found that the socially isolated team lost volume in their prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for decision-making and problem-solving. This group also had lower levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that aids in the development of nerve cells in the brain. 

The crew members underwent MRIs and other cognitive testing before and after the mission to study changes in the volume of subsections of the hippocampus and of whole-brain gray matter. Researchers also analyzed cognitive performance and BDNF concentrations in all nine crew members before, during, and after the expedition.

Crew members were followed after they returned from Antarctica, however, the physical and chemical changes lasted for at least a month and a half. The researchers caution that the data from the study “should be interpreted with caution” due to the small sample size and because they could not “determine which elements of the expedition constituted social or environmental deprivation.”

The results confirm what other studies are discovering about social and physical isolation and the impact that loneliness can have on an individual. According to a 2018 report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 22% of adults in the United States say they often or always feel lonely or socially isolated and a 2019 national survey led by health insurer Cigna found that 61% of Americans report feeling lonely. 

Cigna’s report also found that younger generations are lonelier than older generations with 79% of Gen Zers, 71% of millennials reporting loneliness when compared with just 50% of boomers. 

A 2021 report from Harvard’s Making Caring Common project suggests that these feelings of loneliness were exacerbated by the global pandemic, with 1 in 3 Americans facing “serious loneliness” during the pandemic, calling these numbers “alarming.”

The report also found that 61% of young adults aged 18-25 and 51% of mothers with young children reported “serious loneliness” and reported feeling this way “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the four weeks prior to the survey. 

“These levels of loneliness are heartbreaking. We have big holes in our social fabric. We need to mobilize coherently and strategically to assure that far fewer Americans are stranded and disconnected,” said Richard Weissbourd, lead author of the report.

While loneliness appears to be pervasive in modern society, the Harvard report recommends three societal factors in addressing loneliness. They suggest providing information and strategies to help people cope with loneliness, improve physical and social infrastructure, and restore emotional, physical, and moral health of society as a whole. 

Editor’s Biblical Analysis

As this report confirms isolation can so easily lead to despair and hopelessness; characteristics that are not part of God’s design for humanity. This is why God throughout Scripture has commanded us to live in community with others.

While it can be easy in this digital age to resort to keeping to ourselves as a means of avoiding the “messiness” that relationships can bring, God in his wisdom has created us as social beings and wired the benefits of being connected to others into our DNA.

We see this first in the garden of Eden, when God stated, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Because of this, He created a wife for Adam and ordained the concept of family and community from the beginning of creation. (Gen. 2:18)

We see this again in Matthew 18:20 where God outlines the importance of fellowshipping with other believers: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Further, in Galatians 6:2 Paul commands believers to walk alongside other believers even when (or especially when) it is difficult: Carry each other’s burdens, and in this, you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

This is why it is essential for the spiritual health of a believer to be involved in a Bible-believing church. This is more than just sitting in a service one day a week, it involves getting plugged in and serving alongside others.

This doesn’t mean that the church is perfect. In the church, you will find flawed humans just like you will in the world, but in the church, you will also find those who have a common purpose – to seek Christ and make him known.

Ultimately, however, the Bible tells us that hope, peace, and fulfillment can only be found in one place – a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. While humans will fail and betray us, God is eternally faithful. He is a friend that is closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24) and has promised to never leave us or forsake us. (Deut. 31:8).

So let us not fall into the despair and hopelessness that comes with pursuing the things of this world or isolating ourselves from the world. Instead, let each of us pursue after Christ individually, so that we can build up the rest of the body of Christ corporately.

But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body.  – 1 Cor. 12:18-20