Expert Interview: What are Long-Term Effects of Covid-19 Social Isolation?

“Digital cognitive assessments are crucial regardless of where we are with the pandemic. Just as our blood pressure is measured regularly to monitor symptoms of cardiovascular disease, we should be monitoring our cognition as well.”

Dr. Mylea Charvat, Clinical Neuropsychologist and Neuroscientist, CEO of Savonix

Lockdown measures and social distancing have a critical role to play in curbing the Covid-19 pandemic, but they come with the side effects of social isolation and loneliness, which have been proven to have harmful effects on the public.

Social isolation is not a new phenomenon. In 2018, one in five Americans reported either always or often feeling lonely or socially isolated, frequently with physical, mental, and financial consequences.

But as quarantines shear away a majority of American’s social connections, the problem is exacerbated, and a large crop of the population is now getting a firsthand experience in social isolation and loneliness.

“It’s important to remember self-care, especially during this time,” says Dr. Mylea Charvat, a clinical neuropsychologist and neuroscientist, and the CEO and founder of Savonix, a digital cognitive assessment company.

“According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 47 percent of those sheltering-in-place reported negative mental health effects resulting from worry or stress related to coronavirus, and 21 percent reported a major negative impact on their mental health from stress and worry about coronavirus.”

Studies have repeatedly shown that social isolation and loneliness can and do have negative effects on one’s health. Most pointedly, a meta-analysis of study data indicated that loneliness or social isolation significantly increases the risk of premature death—and at a level that puts it in the same category of risk as obesity. By contrast, a meta-study of 148 other reports found that a sense of social connection reduces the risk of premature mortality and increases the chance of survival by 50 percent.

Meet the Expert: Mylea Charvat, PhD

Dr. Mylea Charvat is the CEO and founder of Savonix, a digital cognitive assessment company. She completed her PhD fellowship training in clinical psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University School of Medicine, a clinical internship at Napa State Hospital, a doctorate in clinical health psychology from Palo Alto University, and a BGS in psychology from the University of Kansas.

Dr. Charvat has authored peer-reviewed publications on mental health and neuroimaging; written for Psychology Today, TechCrunch, and The Huffington Post; and been a lecturer at Stanford University, the University of San Francisco, and San Francisco State University.

Why are Social Connections So Crucial to Human Health?

Humans physically need social connections. Without them, the body begins to break down. Preliminary data suggests that poor social connection is linked to poor general health overall, and meta-analysis has shown it can increase the risk of stroke by 32 percent and the risk of heart disease by 29 percent.

Social isolation and loneliness can cause a higher likelihood of depression, decreased cognitive function, and dementia, with secondary side effects that may include higher rates of substance abuse, alcohol-related deaths, and suicide. Other long-term side effects are not yet fully understood.

Social isolation and loneliness can disproportionately impact at-risk demographics, particularly those unevenly affected by Covid-19. The sizable portion of the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ population that already faces barriers to quality healthcare may see greater negative impacts of social isolation. Lower-income populations may not be able to work remotely during lockdowns, adding to their stress burden. Senior citizens in assisted living facilities are particularly vulnerable.

“These groups were already at-risk for poor health outcomes, and Covid-19 exacerbates these issues,” Dr. Charvat says. “Cognitive decline and dementia disproportionately impact these groups, and with social isolation and loneliness, the risk increases.”

Covid-19 and Social Isolation

Regardless of one’s class, race, or age, the effects of the pandemic’s imposed social isolation are acutely pronounced for the 28 percent of Americans who live alone. A prolonged lack of physical closeness to others may put the mind and body into a state of heightened alert, leading to increased blood pressure, inflammation, and stress.

Virtual social connections are not a one-size-fits-all substitute. One survey found virtual gatherings failed to reduce loneliness in nearly half of all respondents, and actively made the feeling of loneliness worse in 10 percent of respondents.

Some forms of digital communication are more helpful than others in mitigating the detrimental effects of social isolation. Video chat allows one to register facial cues and promotes a greater sense of engagement. Regularly scheduled video or voice calls add the power of routine and normalcy, which can also be helpful. Performing an activity together while chatting can boost mental stimulation, and sharing a good laugh has demonstrable antidepressant effects.

But not everyone has the technological capability to connect over video chat. Some have income limitations, and others, perhaps due to their age or mental status, lack the prerequisite knowledge.

Cognitive Testing for the Impact of Loneliness

This illustrates the sinister nature of loneliness and social isolation: those who suffer the worst often go unnoticed. And going unnoticed is precisely the problem, as up to 44 percent of mild cognitive impairment is reversible, once identified. Digital tools like Savonix’s cognitive testing could be part of the answer.

“Digital cognitive assessments are crucial regardless of where we are with the pandemic,” Dr. Charvat says. “Just as our blood pressure is measured regularly to monitor symptoms of cardiovascular disease, we should be monitoring our cognition as well. We call cognition the fifth vital sign for this reason. Psychiatrists and mental health counselors should encourage regular cognitive testing.”

Other ways of combating social isolation and loneliness include regular exercise, structured schedules, and mindfulness in regards to one’s own mental health. Conscious breathing, meditation, and other relaxation techniques can decrease anxiety and depression. Most importantly, one shouldn’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Being able to talk about the problem openly, whether via video, voice, or text, can be a significant part of the solution.

“Everyone should be testing their cognitive health, not just when they’re 65 or when they start experiencing symptoms of decline,” Dr. Charvat says. “By testing early, a baseline can be established, and by monitoring regularly, any signs of decline can be detected quickly, and a plan to intervene and slow down its progression can be created.”

Rays of hope are glimmering through the gloom of the pandemic. Some studies have shown that, after a brief increase in the first month of lockdowns, loneliness has leveled off among survey respondents. Others suggest it may even be declining. And a major silver lining to the recent lockdowns is that some of the taboo around loneliness has been removed.

As citizens, healthcare workers, and politicians begin to engage the topic of loneliness openly, the population will become more adept at fighting it.

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California, and he believes a strong society demands a stronger mental health system. Since early 2018, he’s written extensively about emerging topics in counseling, research, and healthcare education. Drawing upon interviews with hospital CEOs, healthcare professionals, professors, and advocacy groups, his writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best.

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