Social isolation has been recognized as a major risk factor for morbidity and mortality in humans for more than a quarter of a century. Although the focus of research has been on objective social roles and health behavior, the brain is the key organ for forming, monitoring, maintaining, repairing, and replacing salutary connections with others. Accordingly, population-based longitudinal research indicates that perceived social isolation (loneliness) is a risk factor for morbidity and mortality independent of objective social isolation and health behavior. Human and animal investigations of neuroendocrine stress mechanisms that may be involved suggest that (a) chronic social isolation increases the activation of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical axis, and (b) these effects are more dependent on the disruption of a social bond between a significant pair than objective isolation per se. The relational factors and neuroendocrine, neurobiological, and genetic mechanisms that may contribute to the association between perceived isolation and mortality are reviewed.
Keywords: animal models; loneliness; social endocrinology; social genomics; social isolation; social neuroscience.