The psychological stress of social isolation may make people more susceptible to severe Covid-19 infection, a US scientist has claimed.
Dr Sheldon Cohen, who is a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, said evidence from his previous research suggests social stressors are linked to an increased vulnerability to upper respiratory viruses, such as those which cause common cold.
He believes there is a possibility that the psychological effect of stay-at-home measures, adopted by countries around the world to slow down the spread of the virus by minimising contact between people, might play a similar role by increasing a person’s susceptibility to Covid-19 illness.
He said stay-at-home measures can increase interpersonal stressors, such as loneliness, loss of employment and familial conflict, which may be “powerful predictors of how a person will respond if exposed to coronavirus”.
Dr Cohen, who has published his hypothesis in the journal Perspectives in Psychological Science, claimed social integration and social support could offer a “protective shield” against coronavirus and other respiratory infections.
He said: “If you have a diverse social network (social integration), you tend to take better care of yourself (no smoking, moderate drinking, more sleep and exercise).
“Also if people perceive that those in their social network will help them during a period of stress or adversity (social support) then it attenuates the effect of the stressor and is less impactful on their health.”
Dr Cohen, who studies the impact of behavioural, social and psychological factors on the development of upper respiratory illnesses, previously found social stressors to be associated with an increased production of cytokines, proteins that promote inflammation in response to infection.
While cytokines help the immune system suppress infection, an overproduction of these proteins can cause hyperinflammation, which can seriously harm or even kill the patient.
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