Loneliness Can Harm Your Health

Apr 20, 2020

By: Dr. Victor S. Sierpina | Galveston County The Daily News

“Every sunrise is an invitation for us to arise and brighten someone’s day.”

 Richelle E. Goodrich

Do you ever feel lonely? How about feelings of being isolated in these days of social distancing? In a recent essay, “Loneliness and Health” in the journal “Explore,” physician and author, Larry Dossey shared some incredible information.

What is loneliness? It’s more than just living alone or being alone. It’s a lack of harmonious relationship not just with others, but with our essential self, and beyond that, some unifying universal force or being.

In the United States, the 2018 census found that 34 million Americans live alone. Some are single and younger, others older. For ages 75 and older, nearly a quarter of men and almost one half of women live alone. The frail elderly, those with multiple chronic conditions, the disabled, the homeless are all at higher risk of poor health outcomes when isolated, according to Dossey’s literature review.

Loneliness is as much of a risk factor for premature death as obesity or smoking a half pack of cigarettes daily. Social isolation and disconnectedness increase mortality and risk of depression, cognitive decline, coronary artery disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis and even the common cold. Suicides and accidental deaths are increased. Loneliness is a cause, not just an effect.

Recognizing this issue, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May even appointed a minister for loneliness to support those with no one to care for them, or to talk to. The objective was to increase their resilience, optimism and social connectivity. Anti-loneliness programs developed social interventions and group projects with activities from bird-watching, coffee klatches, conversation walks, community gardening and furniture restoration.

These days, Google Hangouts, FaceTime and Zoom offer connections from afar even when we cannot be next to each other. Our cellphones make it so easy to reach out and connect with someone by voice, texts, images, emails and social media.

These hardly substitute for sitting together around a campfire or barbecue, having a beer, celebrating a wedding or observing a funeral together, or even the simple joy of interacting in the hallways and offices at work. However, social creatures that we are, we continue to reach out and need to do so for each others’ health’s sake in whatever ways we can.

Dossey cited a study on how researchers isolated for 9 out of 14 months at a frozen station in Antarctica were found to have decreases in the size and function of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that affects spatial processing and selective attention. A deprived social and low stimulus environment decreased brain-derived neurotropic factor and their brains shrunk.

As we emerge from our pandemic generated hibernation and hermitages, I hope we can recognize not only the values of quiet time and reflection, our new questions, perspectives and possibilities, but the intricate web of life that connects each and every one of us, keeping us well and whole.

Let’s go from I to we. May we be grateful for each other in new ways.

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