Today is a special day, it is 42 days since I last had any physical contact with anybody and 84 days since I started my own social distancing. It was a great hug from a friend and knowing what was coming we broke the rules and had a special hug. It was a good luck hug too and a ‘if one of us doesn’t make it then remember this’ type of hug.
Even that was sort of a one off. Social distancing was already in my actions even if the term hadn’t properly been coined. With my asthma and chest infections I started all of that 42 days previously when a succession of doctors examined my leg.
A few years ago it was revealed half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all. The charity Age UK ran an important campaign called ‘No one should have no one’. I remember thinking at the time how they always concentrate on loneliness with old people. There are plenty of much younger people who live similarly and though older people have the disadvantage of possibly being more infirm, younger people have the disadvantage of if they are actually alone, nobody actually stops to consider them. Just a few days ago a 21 year old man committed suicide due to the strains of self-isolation.
I must admit five or six days without seeing or speaking to anyone is quite normal for me even in pre-lockdown times though 42 days is pushing it rather.
It’s strange not to have a recent memory of human touch. So much of our life is based on fleeting physical connections that ground us, comfort us after loss or disappointment. Or annoy us like a sweaty person squashing you on a bus or tube train.
Touch is so important to mental health. A slight touch on the shoulder slows down heart rate, blood pressure and the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Touch someone lightly on the arm makes it more likely that they will respond to us in a positive way. Touch also boosts our immune system, and leads to increases in levels of the hormone serotonin, which is our body’s natural antidepressant.
Casual social touch is can be an incredible element of our lives, a quick tap on the arm to show the joke was good. A reassuring pat on the knee to know that you’re not alone. A hug which for as long as it lasts makes everything ok with the world.
Recent studies have shown that people who live alone and have little interaction with the outside world are more likely to end up in hospital with respiratory disease. Living alone and poor social engagement was found to increase the chance of a trip to hospital by 32 and 24 per cent, respectively.
It also has implications for the severity of the coronavirus – itself a life-threatening breathing disorder. Lead author Professor Daisy Fancourt, of University College London, said: ‘Whilst this study focused on respiratory disease, it does raise questions as to if, and how, hospital admissions for other respiratory conditions such as COVID-19 may be related to social factors such as isolation in addition to biomedical factors.’
Both social isolation and loneliness have been linked with an increased incidence of morbidity and mortality and are associated with decreased medication adherence and health-seeking behaviours, and increased hospital admissions for a wide range of conditions including mental illness and heart failure.’
We’ve probably all heard of the phrase and heard it on the grapevine of someone dying of loneliness or a broken heart. In fact research suggests it is possible to ‘die of loneliness’.
A major study of 480,000 people in the U.K. published in March 2018 suggested social isolation can increase the chance of a stroke by 39 per cent and premature death by 50 per cent. Loneliness may raise the risk of a heart attack by more than 40 per cent, researchers found.
Those who already had cardiovascular problems were far more likely to die early if they were isolated, suggesting the importance of family and friends in aiding recovery. The research team, which included British academics, said lonely people had a higher rates of chronic diseases and smoking and showed more symptoms of depression.