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A place-based and relational perspective on loneliness and social isolation

Current Research, Dr Emily Long

A place-based and relational perspective on loneliness and social isolation

Dr Emily Long, MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit

Loneliness and social isolation are pressing concerns for population wellbeing within the UK, with their relevance particularly acknowledged since the onset of Covid-19. Loneliness is defined as the subjective emotional experience of an absence of desired social relationships, while social isolation refers to the objective quantity of social relationships and frequency of contact. Both loneliness and isolation have known associations with physical health, use of health care services, and confer an early mortality risk comparable to that from obesity or smoking. 

But what causes someone to be lonely or socially isolated? And are the risk factors different dependent on where someone lives? Rural areas, for example, face specific challenges related to loneliness and social isolation, including limited public transportation, digital access and exclusion, and practical constraints on facilitating relationships between people who live more remotely.  

Based within a social ecological framework, loneliness and social isolation are the product of multiple, interdependent domains of influence (e.g., individual, interpersonal, community, societal), wherein factors within different spheres mutually influence each other. Aspects of rural life that may have particular implications for loneliness and isolation are evaluated alongside a complex set of social ecological factors. In this way, differences in factors that drive loneliness or social isolation can be compared across rural and urban settings, while recognising that individual circumstances may mitigate or exacerbate place-based differences.  

Moreover, social network characteristics are known to relate to loneliness and isolation. Grounded in sociology and social network theory, social network analysis (SNA) captures the relational ties (known as ‘alters’) of an individual (known as an ‘ego’), including the ties between alters (i.e., network density), relational characteristics (e.g., supportiveness), and attributes (e.g., age) of those who comprise the social network. By incorporating these characteristics into statistical models, SNA can identify specific dimensions of relationships that relate to loneliness or isolation.  

Despite this potential, social network data have not been collected in large-scale surveys in the UK, limiting understanding of the dynamics between social networks and loneliness to generalizations from the US. As such, the extent to which the social networks of those experiencing loneliness differ from non-lonely individuals is unknown. Similarly, although rural communities face a unique social environment, it is unclear whether this translates to differences in social networks, and how this may relate to loneliness or isolation. 

Efforts to reduce loneliness and social isolation that fail to account for the impact of place, and the interconnections between place-based influences and personal circumstances, including social networks, risk ignoring critical avenues for prevention. Recent policy initiatives acknowledge this and urge for a place-based investigation of loneliness and isolation, explicitly highlighting the need for research in rural areas, including an assessment of differing risk factors compared to urban locations.  

In response, we are currently collecting data on social relationships and wellbeing among Scottish adults living in either Glasgow or the rural Highlands. This data will allow us to investigate place-based differences in loneliness and social isolation across the life span, examine links with mental health, and elucidate the patterns through which social connections impact loneliness. Stay tuned for our results. 

See further details on our study: http://bit.ly/connectionsstudy 

See the following references for further research on these topics. 

1. Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (2018). 2.Valtorta, N. Heart (2016). 3.Valtorta, N. American Journal of Public Health (2018). 4. Holt-Lunstad, J. Perspectives of Psychological Science (2015). 5. Henning-Smith, Policy Brief (2018). 6. Santini, Z. Lancet Public Health (2020). 7. Bhavsar, V. PloS one (2019). 8. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2019). 9. Scottish Government (2020). 10. Public Health England (2017). 11. Victor, C. BMC Public Health (2020). 

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