The COVID-19 pandemic shook the world, leaving in its wake an unexpected guest—loneliness.
Post-COVID-19, researchers are worried about a growing “epidemic of loneliness.” There is however a plot twist: loneliness is not just a nagging feeling; it is a villain that could weaken your bones.
We’re about to embark on a journey into the strange and fascinating world of how social isolation might just have a bone to pick with you.
Loneliness: A Sneaky Villain
Picture this: You are stuck at home and loneliness is knocking at your door. It turns out it is not just another emotional hurdle but a potent form of psychosocial stress. It is also not picky as it targets all age groups, with older adults feeling its grip the most.
The Health Crisis within Loneliness
Loneliness does not just stop at isolation, it has a darker side. It has been known to carry with it various health problems including mental health disorders. It plays a part in higher overall rates of illness and mortality. That is not all, the real twist is that chronic psychological stress is linked to the “super villain” of bone health—osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis: The Silent Thief
Osteoporosis is a skeletal degenerative disease that quietly chips away at your bone’s strength and leads to fractures. It leads to fractures which arise from an imbalance in bone remodelling in which case, bone resorption (the job of osteoclasts) overtakes bone formation (the job of osteoblasts).
Dr Rebecca Mountain, a post-doctoral fellow, and her team decided to investigate this. They placed 32 young mice (both male and female) through a unique trial: social isolation versus group housing. The results? Mind-blowing!
- In the world of male mice, social isolation weakened their bones’ density, volume, and thickness.
- Male mice in isolation hinted at diminished bone remodelling, further threatening their bone health.
- The female mice did not show reductions in bone compared to their social counterparts. Instead, they displayed signs of increased bone remodelling with no change in bone mass.
One lesson from this experiment is for isolated adults to consider screening for bone loss and fracture risk.
The Gender Factor
Is sex a factor in this bone-chilling tale? Let us take a look at the female mice. They showed higher bone formation and resorption markers when exposed to social isolation. However, this did not significantly affect their bone structure, except for an increase in trabecular thickness. Estrogen, the super hormone for bones, might be behind this resilience.
However, orthopaedic surgeon Dr Douglas Jarvis suggests another angle. Social isolation could throw testosterone production and hormonal balances off, potentially harming bone metabolism. It seems the female hormonal cycle might withstand this challenge better over a four-week span.
The Bone Health Heroes
Dr. William Buxton, a neurologist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute, believes that weight-bearing exercises are essential. They are like the shield protecting your bones from osteoporosis. On another front, Dr. Rianon adds to the discussion, highlighting that depression and weight loss can lead to frailty, disability, and decreased mobility, ultimately facilitating bone loss.
Who Is at Risk?
Before you start worrying, let us figure out who might be in the danger zone of social isolation and bone health. If you:
- Live alone
- Cannot leave your home
- Faced a major life change (e.g. the loss of a loved one or retirement)
- Struggle financially
- Are a caregiver
- Battle psychological or cognitive challenges like depression
- Have limited social support
- Face hearing difficulties
- Live in a remote, unsafe, or hard-to-reach neighbourhood
- Encounter language barriers
- Experience discrimination based on age, race, ethnicity, or gender
- Feel disengaged or purposeless in life, etc.
You might be at risk. But don’t worry. We have a plan.
Taking Action: Your Anti-Loneliness Arsenal-
Now that we know the risk factors, let us equip you with an armour for fending off loneliness:
- Rediscover old hobbies or embark on new adventures.
- Schedule daily connections with friends, family, and neighbours. It could be in person, or through emails, social media, calls, or texts.
- Do not shy away from learning tech if you’re not savvy. Local classes can help.
- Consider getting a pet; they are not just companions but stress-relievers as well.
- Keep moving. Aim for 150 minutes of exercise each week. Join a gym if you can afford it, jog around your neighbourhood or work out with a friend.
- Get to know your neighbours—a friendly wave can lead to great connections.
- Explore faith-based organisations for a deeper sense of spirituality and community.
- Tap into local resources of available community centres and libraries.
- Dive into your community, join a cause and make a difference.
The tale of loneliness and its impact on bone health is a complex one, with many twists and turns. But remember, you hold the pen to your own story. Stay connected, stay active, and face the world with a smile. Your bones and your heart will thank you.
RESEARCHED BY: Olukotun Joan