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The biggest health issue in America today is not heart disease, cancer, diabetes, smoking or obesity. According to Dr. Vivek Murthy, the recent Surgeon General of the United States, it is the effects that come from feeling lonely and socially disconnected.

Strong social connection leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity

Dr. Murthy’s replacement, Acting Surgeon General Dr. Sylvia Trent-Adams, agrees. She recently tweeted that while 20% of adults reported feeling lonely in the 1980s, that number has risen to 40% today. She says that the toll loneliness takes on our health is comparable to smoking or obesity. People who are isolated are 2 times more likely to die prematurely than those who are not.

In his book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, University of Chicago social neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo sites numerous studies showing that isolation has easily measurable physiological effects. The emotional pain of isolation is a root cause of many of the diseases from which we suffer. It isn’t the only cause of disease, but the evidence shows that feeling isolated from others is associated with disrupted sleep, increased blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease and stroke, declining brain function, increased depression and anxiety, shorter life spans and lower overall subjective well-being.

A recent study by Steve Cole, a genomics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains that a lack of social connections can spark inflammation and changes in the immune system. This leads to increased risk for cancer, neurodegenerative disease and viral infections, causing lonely people to be far more likely to die prematurely.

On the flip side, Dr. Trent-Adams ended her tweet by suggesting that improving our social connections is a powerful antidote to isolation. There is convincing evidence from a meta-analytic review of 148 studies showing that strong social connection leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity.

What can you do to cultivate and maintain a satisfying social life in order to increase your chances of enjoying a long, healthy, happy life? Here are five suggestions:

  • Maintain contact with existing friends and reconnect with your old friends. Make an effort to carve out time to be with the people you care about.
  • Remember that it’s not the quantity of social relationships but the quality that really matters. An introvert might need one confidante not to feel lonely, whereas an extrovert might require two, three or four bosom buddies.
  • If you use social media, use it as a way station; use Facebook so that you can meet up somewhere. If it’s used as a destination, as a place to withdraw socially and interact as a non-authentic self, it can deepen your sense of loneliness and isolation.
  • Create a setting where people can let their guards down and safely confide in each other. Practice speaking about your feelings with authenticity and listening to others non-judgmentally and with empathy and compassion.
  • One of the best ways to forge and maintain friendships is through built-in regularity — something you can plan around that is always on the schedule at least twice a month – perhaps meeting with your support group on a regular basis, or gathering around the table to play games, or planning an activity with family or friends that requires preparation and training together, such as a challenging hike.

Ideally, we take proactive measures to stay physically and emotionally healthy and happy. But even in those who have diagnosed disease, Dr. Dean Ornish and his colleagues have proven that the disease can be undone. Many studies involving thousands of patients with heart disease who have participated in Ornish Lifestyle Medicine show that the participants began to reverse their heart disease, and 73% of patients with depressive symptoms stopped feeling depressed after only 12 weeks.

For those of you who graduate from the initial 12 weeks program, continuing to participate regularly in your Ornish Alumni Community is an ideal way to ensure that you get your regular antidote to isolation. Feel good knowing that this type of social connection incorporates all five of my recommendations for connection.

Dr. Murtha reminds us that we don’t need a medical degree or a nursing degree to help improve our own mental and physical health or that of our loved ones and our communities. We all have the ability to help foster and build connection with the people around us. That can be one of the most powerful tools used to enhance our wellbeing and health as well as that of others. The outreach that you make to another person, whether it’s a stranger or a loved one, is a medicine in and of itself.

What are you doing to improve your social connections and develop a deeper connection with those you care for?

 

Contributed by

Bob Avenson
Senior Faculty - Group Support

Friendship is when people know all about you but like you anyway.

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