Social connection


The importance of social connections

19 June 2024

Loneliness and social isolation can seriously impact both physical and mental health. It’s something that affects people of all ages throughout the world. In fact, it’s estimated that as many as 1 in 4 older adults and between 5 and 15 per cent of adolescents experience loneliness.1

In the UK, the post-COVID move to remote working has added a new dimension to this issue for many people of working age. It’s an evolving, complex and often under-recognised issue within our society.

Let’s look at the effects social isolation can have on all aspects of our health and discover ways to forge and maintain rewarding connections and relationships.

Understanding loneliness and social isolation

Loneliness and social isolation are not the same thing. While loneliness is a personal feeling, social isolation is a measure of the amount of contact we have with other people.2

Loneliness isn’t the same as solitude, so it’s possible to be alone and not feel lonely – we all need time to ourselves from time-to-time. Loneliness is a deeper feeling of disconnection, and it’s possible to experience it even when you’re surrounded by other people.

Social isolation is when someone doesn’t have contact or relationships with anyone, which means they have little or no social support. Social isolation can cause health risks, even if you don’t actually feel lonely.3

So, while these are separate concepts, ongoing isolation often leads to feelings of loneliness, and vice versa. So they’re intrinsically linked and often go hand-in-hand.

What are the health risks of loneliness?

Personal relationships affect both our mental and physical wellbeing. Having close relationships with people can give us a sense of belonging and purpose, while ensuring we have somewhere to turn for emotional support. Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to an increased risk of a variety of health conditions and outcomes,3 including:

  • heart disease and stroke
  • type 2 diabetes
  • depression and anxiety
  • addiction
  • suicide and self-harm
  • dementia.

Who is at risk?

No one is immune to the effects of loneliness. It can impact anyone, anywhere, and at any age.

Childhood – a family breakdown can affect how we learn about relationship-forming and make it harder to feel close to others.

Adolescence – friends can become increasingly important at this stage, and negative experiences such as bullying can lead to withdrawal from society. Social media can also play a part at this stage in life, as people often measure their successes, experiences and connections against those of others.

>Read more on comparison in our article What role does comparison play in your life?

Adulthood – romantic relationships can break down, friends can move away or lose touch when they have children, and work pressures can leave us with less time to spend with loved ones. Low-income adults may also be more at risk if their options for socialising are more limited or they need to spend more time working.

Also, since COVID, remote working means many of us don’t have the same daily contact and collaboration with colleagues that we had before. This means more of us are spending more time alone during the day.

Later life – loneliness is a significant issue for older people for many reasons. Whether they’ve lost loved ones, are unable to travel or they’ve retired and no longer have workplace interactions, we become particularly vulnerable to loneliness later in life. Nearly a million older people across the UK said they often feel lonely.4

Certain individual circumstances, events and life experiences can also impact our relationships or affect our ability to connect with people.

  • Mental or physical challenges – this could include a chronic health condition, a long-term disability, depression or a psychiatric condition.
  • Discrimination – people who feel marginalised or who suffer from discrimination can feel more isolated. This could include immigrants and people who identify as LGBTQ+.3
  • Isolation – geography and convenience also play their part. People who live in remote rural areas or have limited transport options are more at risk of becoming isolated.
  • Language barriers – not being able to communicate easily or effectively due to a language barrier can also lead to feelings of disconnection.
  • Abuse – in abusive relationships, victims can be isolated by their abuser or they may withdraw from loved ones. And in childhood, negative circumstances such as neglect, abuse and conflict can severely impact a child’s ability to form relationships in the future.
  • Grief – significant and difficult loss can also cause us to struggle mentally, leading to social withdrawal. Losing a loved one, becoming unemployed or going through a break-up or divorce are all possible causes of grief or embarrassment, which can lead to isolation.

How to avoid falling into loneliness

Throughout our lives, we all experience different kinds of connections with all kinds of people. People may come and go from your life, and that’s okay, but it’s important to hold on to those that are important to you and be open to the idea of meeting new people.

Assess your situation and ask yourself if there’s more you could be doing to maintain or create meaningful connections. And examine whether your relationships serve you well, or if there are other areas where you could make more of an effort.

When we break it all down and make things simple, people fall into one of two categories: those who we know and those we haven’t met yet. So, there are only really two areas to focus on:

1) Staying connected

Maintaining your existing relationships is vital to avoiding isolation in the future.

It’s easy to assume that family and close friends will be in our lives forever, but those relationships still need to be nurtured. Make a point of catching up as often as possible. Pick up the phone, send a text, arrange to get together when you can – even if it’s just once or twice a year, the closest relationships can usually pick up right where they left off.

You may also have a wider network of people you already know, such as co-workers and neighbours, who you’ll be less close with but see more often than your loved ones. If you have a good rapport with people in this category, consider trying to form more meaningful connections with them. Focus on shared interests and suggest an activity you can both enjoy at a convenient time – this could be anything from exercising together after work to just going for a coffee at lunchtime.

2) Making new friends

It’s possible to examine your situation and feel as though you don’t have many good, close relationships, or that you’ve outgrown certain friendships. Maybe you’re newly single or you feel as though you don’t see loved ones very often. Whatever your situation, there are plenty of ways to make new connections.

  • Join a sports group or a hobby society – this is a great way to meet people that share an interest and meet regularly. Search online or visit your local library for details of what’s available in your area.
  • Try volunteering – give your time to a good cause and make new connections with like-minded people.
  • Just talk to people – whether it’s a friend of a friend at a gathering, or there’s someone you recognise at the gym or on your daily commute, try striking up a conversation and seeing what you have in common.
  • Get a dog – not only can dogs give us affection and companionship when we’re alone, they also get us out of the house and can be a great way of meeting other people that also have dogs.
  • Open your heart – a romantic partner is one of the closest and longest-lasting connections you can find. Be open to meeting new people, let friends set you up or join a dating app. It doesn’t matter what stage of life you’re at, there’s always someone else out there looking for a connection. Just remember, when you’re meeting new people, be sensible and consider your personal safety.

>Read more on how to help combat loneliness in our ‘7 steps to help deal with loneliness’.

Isolation and loneliness can seriously impact your health – both physical and mental. It’s vital to forge and maintain close, rewarding relationships. Not every approach outlined above will work for you but taking simple steps to strengthen your connections and create new ones can make all the difference, now and in the future.


  1. WHO Commission on Social Connection - World Health Organization
  2. Loneliness and isolation - understanding the difference and why it matters - Age UK
  3. Health Risks of Social Isolation and Loneliness - CDC
  4. Age UK analysis of Understanding Society - Age UK