Social Isolation

The quality and quantity of individuals’ social relationships has been linked not only to mental health but also to both morbidity and mortality.

Chronic feelings of subjective social isolation have an increased mortality risk comparable to high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking, and can actually accelerate the ageing process (Cacioppo and Patrick 2008; House, Landis and Umberson 1988).

Chronic social isolation is a predictor of functional decline and death among individuals older than 60 years (Perissinotto, Stijacic Cenzer, and Covinsky 2012).

Experiences of social isolation are often cited by poor people as painful aspects of poverty.

Poverty means being lonely…and not being able to get other things
because you are lonely. (Woman, South Africa).

They become isolated to other people, and that is why some people
become stressed…if you isolate yourself, you won’t be able
to know how to solve the problem. (Woman, South Africa).


While shame and humiliation, and isolation are distinct aspects of deprivations in social connectedness, which may or may not be causally connected, they are strongly linked. Sometimes poverty poses a choice between isolation and shame.

Even if you are hungry…you can’t go to them to ask for food or money,
because they are judging you that you are poor…they won’t give
you money…so it’s better that you isolate yourself.
(Focus group participant, South Africa).

You don’t know what they are feeling inside, and they do isolate themselves because they are being classified as the poor, so it won’t be to go
and help as a neighbour because they are classified as a poor family,
so they will isolate themselves, full of hatred to anyone.
(Man, South Africa)

‘Social contacts constitute an elementary human need, are a considerable source of support and prove necessary for the integration and mutual commitment of people in society’. (Hortulanus, Machielse, and Meeuwesen 2006).

Further materials

Kim Samuel, OPHI Scholar in Residence, gave a speech on social isolation at the Emerging Markets Symposium in Oxford on 16 January 2015. Her talk can be found here.

Zavaleta, D., Samuel, K., and Mills, C. (2014). ‘Social isolation: A conceptual and measurement proposal,’ OPHI Working Papers 67, University of Oxford.