Dr. Jeff Kane: Loneliness And Health

Mar 12, 2020

Many years ago I worked for F.R.E.E.D., our local agency that aids disabled people. Wondering about possible health benefits of simple human contact, we obtained a grant to enroll forty clients to discuss common human experiences in a group setting. For two hours weekly over two months, we chatted about our relationships, our work, disabilities, sex, spirituality, and death and dying.

We recorded participants’ healthcare use before and after the project, and again six months later. After the project we found that their medical visits dropped 40% and held there. When we reported our findings to grant agency officers they didn’t believe us, and declined to renew our funding. Too bad, because today our discovery would be back-page news. Numerous studies have confirmed that people who simply meet and converse — that is, socialize — use less healthcare.

I was surprised, though, when a couple of members of our F.R.E.E.D. group confided to me, “I didn’t know you could talk about this stuff.” I’ve heard that comment elsewhere, too. Evidently deeper, more intimate conversations are the exception rather than the rule. After all, it’s considered impertinent to ask an acquaintance, “What rewards you most in this life, and by the way, how do you feel about eventually dying?”

We express such deeper feelings only in an atmosphere of trust, and that usually takes more contact time. I say usually because a sense of urgency, like, say, arising from a recent life-threatening diagnosis, can accelerate the process. Or even absent a diagnosis, recognizing that since life itself is a terminal condition, exploring it now is advisable.

Since socialization eventuates in fewer doctor visits, let’s look at its opposite, loneliness. This is no small item in America. In the last generation the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. A third of Americans older than 65 now live alone, and half of those over 85 do.

Studies show that people with less social connection suffer disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent. Another study showed that being socially unconnected is as dangerous as smoking almost a pack of cigarettes a day, and was more predictive of early death than the effects of air pollution or physical inactivity. One meta-analysis—a study of 70 other studies involving more than 3 million people—found the death rate to be 29% higher among individuals who felt socially isolated.

The take-home message for me is that an active, literally meaningful social life is as potent–and cheaper–a medicine as any drug, and doesn’t require a prescription.

Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.

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