When you think of health, perhaps you think of daily walks, green drinks, telomere length, eating fewer sugary junk foods, or having regular check-ups. But have you ever considered how big an effect “feeling seen” and being part of a community have on wellness and longevity?
Research is showing that health is not just about eating better and moving more. As humans, part of us also hums when we feel like an integral part of a community that “gets” us and cares about us, let alone acknowledges that we exist. Feeling alone (social isolation) and loneliness are as much a threat to health and a risk factor for premature death as obesity, out-of-control inflammation, and sedentary living.
Many Americans admit to loneliness. Our aging population is growing 25% faster than any other segment of our society. Many of these elders—the folks who raised us and kept society going while we were growing—are lonely.
Roughly 42.6 million adults over 45 years old (not just 90-year-olds in old-age facilities) are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness, according to an AARP Loneliness Study. In American households, 25% of adults live solo. More adults are single than married, and marriage statistics are declining. Studies show that even people who are on social community platforms (like Facebook and others) actually, in surveys, admit to perceiving themselves as isolated and lonely.
Loneliness is a real and growing American trend. Whether it’s oldsters that feel devalued or younger adults that rush about with more friends on Face Book but with less trusty friends in their own home town, it’s a real growing health epidemic.
The link between loneliness and social isolation as a public health hazard was presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. They issued a warning that loneliness is equal to the obesity and diabetes epidemics that are threatening our citizens and our health care platforms!
Being connected to others socially is a fundamental human need. In the movie “Rocky,” Sylvester Stallone’s character said that his love for Adrianne worked to “fill in the gaps.” Together they formed a unit. When humans don’t “feel part of” a unit—a family, a set of close friends, a tribe, a community—this is a huge risk factor for serious disease and earlier death. Extreme examples are infants that fail to thrive and can even die if in early custodial care that lacks human contact. Solitary confinement is considered a harsh and severe punishment.
Yet here in the good ole USA, increasing numbers of our citizens are increasingly desolate. Seniors feel more invisible and of less value than the fast moving younger population. Loneliness weakens the body, mind and soul.What can you do?
What can you do?
When you see a stranger, an elder, passing in the grocery store, along the street, in a hotel lobby, or at the gym, don’t avert your eyes because you don’t know them or they are not part of your generation. Smile. Say hello. Be generous with a few molecules of connection. It may make their day and it didn’t cost you a dime.
Know that your kids are your greatest mirrors. They see how you act, and some day they will mimic your social skills, which may be more important to their lives than math or science. Social skills are the connectors of a living and thriving community. When young kids are raised by being Velcroed to screens (toys, pads, phones and more) while not learning to look into the eyes of the adults and peers that surround them, this is a flashing red light for humanity’s ability to connect and to maintain healthy embracing communities.
As we look toward retirement, we should be preparing socially as much as financially. This may not be easy to do, but it is easy to smile at someone in the car stopped at the red light next to you. A little good will goes a long way.
Help someone else be a little bit less lonely today. Mindfulness is not just about you. It’s also about us.
“Social isolation, loneliness could be greater threat to public health than obesity.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 August 2017.
Int J Older People Nurs. 2017 Jul 28. Who often feels lonely? A cross-sectional study about loneliness and its related factors among older home-dwelling people.
Int Psychogeriatr. 2014 Apr 9:1-11. Being all alone makes me sad”: loneliness in older adults with depressive symptoms.
Issues Ment Health Nurs. 1995 Nov-Dec;16(6):583-92. A new perspective on loneliness in later life.
Pain as a Risk Factor for Loneliness Among Older Adults. J Aging Health. 2017 Jul 1:898264317721348.
Contribution of risk factors to excess mortality in isolated and lonely individuals: an analysis of data from the UK Biobank cohort study. Lancet Public Health. 2017 May 4;2(6):e260-e266.
Experiences of Loneliness Associated with Being an Informal Caregiver: A Qualitative Investigation. Front Psychol. 2017 Apr 19;8:585.