I try to always look through a lens of hope and positivity, and while I can usually find the light, even in the darkest hours, the COVID-imposed isolation can have devastating effects on the brain. The populations that are suffering the most are the elderly, as well as those with any brain disorder like Bipolar or Parkinson’s disease.

Hospital or medicated patients, and nursing home and assisted living facility residents are among the most adversely affected. The absence of human contact is linked to declines in cognitive function. Even before COVID-19 spread to the four corners of the world, millions of people were already what researchers consider to be socially isolated—separated from society, with few personal relationships and little communication with the outside world.

Furthermore, there has been a significant increase in the cause of death among the elderly as ‘failure to thrive”, or FTT since COVID. FTT affects those with one chronic disease or with physical  or cognitive limitations. There are four syndromes associated with failure to thrive that tend to predict negative outcomes for patients:

  • Malnutrition
  • Impaired physical function
  • Depression
  • Cognitive decline or impairment

Home-bound or bed-bound people may be more likely to develop Failure to Thrive due to limited social interaction, depression, or malnutrition. Scientific research has revealed a link between social isolation—along with negative emotions such as loneliness that often accompany it – is associated with increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia, as well as mental health consequences such as depression, anxiety, poor health, and premature mortality.

The cognitive effects of prolonged social isolation can be documented from a 1972 study by French adventurer and scientist Michel Siffre, who shut himself in a cave in Texas for more than six months. He documented the effects on his mind for those 205 days, reporting that he could “barely string thoughts” together after a couple months. By the five-month mark, he was reportedly so desperate for company that he tried (unsuccessfully) to befriend a mouse.

This experiment offered glimpses of some of the cognitive and mental effects of sensory and social deprivation. People routinely report confusion, changes in personality, and episodes of anxiety and depression.

Studies of animals and people experiencing isolation have identified several brain structures that appear to be affected by a lack of social interaction. Although these studies can’t identify causal relationships, they do shine a light on some of the mechanisms by which physical isolation  could impair brain function and cognition.

HIPPOCAMPUS: People and other animals experiencing isolation may have smaller-than-normal hippocampi and reduced concentrations of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), both of which are associated with impaired learning and memory. Some studies indicate that levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which affects and is regulated by the hippocampus, are higher in isolation.

AMYGDALA: About a decade ago, researchers found a correlation between the size of a person’s social network and the volume of their amygdala, two almond-shaped brain areas associated with processing emotion. More recent evidence suggests the amygdalae are smaller in people who are lonely or isolated.

There is a difference between objective and subjective measures of isolation because some people might choose solitude without suffering particularly adverse effects, whereas loneliness is an inherently negative emotion, and when experienced for long periods, is often associated with depressive symptoms.

Extreme isolation, such as with prisoners, point to a range of negative cognitive consequences, including difficulties thinking or remembering information, obsessive thinking, and hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms, as well as longer-term mental illness risks, and increased incidence of suicide. Work in countries including Canada, Norway, South Africa, and Switzerland have drawn similar conclusions.

By the time a nine-person crew of the Antarctic research station Neumayer III emerged from their 14-month stay a couple of years ago, they’d endured winter temperatures of -50 °C, drastic changes in natural light, and prolonged lack of contact with the outside world. The effects on their brains, it turned out, were substantial.

Structural MRI performed by neuroscientists before and after the trip showed anatomical changes to the region of the brain associated with learning and memory; the crew members’ regions had shrunk by an average of 7 percent, and had reduced blood levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein involved in stress regulation and memory. They also performed worse on tests of spatial awareness and attention than they had before they left.

Surveys already suggest that many people have felt increasing loneliness since the pandemic began. MRI mapping to determine the volume of the brain’s various regions, found that regardless of their level of social contact, people who were lonely tended to have smaller gray matter volumes in a handful of regions. Those areas included the hippocampus and the amygdala, known for its role in emotion processing. researchers are considering both a lack of social stimulation and loneliness-induced stress as possible contributing factors.

Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.

People who find themselves unexpectedly alone due to the death of a spouse or partner, separation from friends or family, retirement, loss of mobility, and lack of transportation are at particular risk.

Conversely, people who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose.

What You Can Do
If you know and love someone isolated in a hospital, nursing home, or assisted living facility, most of these places will schedule visits, provided all health and safety protocols are followed. However, this may not be enough. If you have a parent with a chronic illness, as I do, longer visits may be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or under one of the tenets of Basic Human Rights, especially the right to life, liberty, and personal security.

If your loved one feels their personal security and life are detrimentally affected by the isolation, talk to the facility director or head administrator about allowing a longer scheduled visit to mitigate these violations as well as thwarting Failure to Thrive before it takes root.

My mother always says that if you don’t like something, you’ll feel better if you take action. Families take care of each other, and this care is cyclical. Just as your mother or father took your hand to help you walk, or wiped your mouth when you were learning to eat, this is our opportunity to give some of that back – with patience, love, and gratitude.