NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – We know the elderly population is extremely vulnerable to the virus. In an effort to keep them safe, many have been separated from loved ones for months. Doctors now see a trend, in some cases, distance leads to death.

News 2 spoke to a professor of clinical psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center about the issue. News 2 asked, “Do you believe people are dying in isolation caused by COVID-19?”
“Absolutely! Absolutely!” responded Dr. William Petrie, “It has played a major role.”

Dr. Petrie lives this sad reality. “In my practice, I have had more than the normal number of deaths in the last three months. I have seen it personally,” he said.

Seclusion and depression, whether caused by fear of contracting the virus or facility restrictions, has become such a problem among the elderly, death certificates now read cause of death as “isolation/failure to thrive related to COVID-19 restrictions”.

“Failure to thrive is something we’ve seen a lot in older people. It’s associated with weight loss, higher vulnerability to pneumonia, falls are very serious and related as well, and also infection. I’ve had patients who have not left their homes in five months,” Petrie said.

Dying from isolation isn’t a new phenomenon. “There are lots of studies that have been done,” Petrie says, “Some of them have estimated that you’re 50-percent more likely to die if you’re in a socially isolated situation. And, that’s before COVID-19.”

The virus highlights the problem. While family, and facilities, may think visitation restrictions help keep their loved one healthy, extreme loneliness speeds up the effects caused by underlying health conditions. “We have to measure the risk benefits of exposure to infection,” Dr. Petrie said. “It hastens dementia, hastens memory impairment, and other neurodegenerative disorders.”

Dr. Petrie believes social interaction can be done safely with more testing, wearing face masks, and small socially distant gatherings. “We’ve just got to adapt to this, because it’s going to be with us. We know it’s going to be here another six months. We’re going to have to find out ways of doing this because it will save lives.”

Using technology to communicate with loved ones is a good option. While Dr. Petrie admits, it doesn’t replace in-person interaction, it can help with isolation.