Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Health Risks of Loneliness

Loneliness hurts emotionally, but over time, it hurts us physically as well. An article by Karen Weintraub in the Boston Globe on April 25 explored this emotional-physical connection. Weintraub cites a study published in March in the Journal Perspectives on Psychological Science: "Lonely people over 65 run the same risk for early death as those who smoke or are at least 100 pounds overweight."

Those of us who work in mind-body medicine pay close attention to how our mental and emotional state impact our physical health. A person who can create and sustain a positive and relaxed state feels good not only in mind, but also in body. The same applies for when we feel badly emotionally and mentally, whether it is due to our life circumstances, our state of mind or both.

Our emotional state activates our physiological state. Bert Uchino, a Psychology Professor at the University of Utah noted that "a lonely person's blood pressure tends to be higher and change more as they age." He also reflected that lonely people tend to have higher levels of inflammation, and this lead to other health problems.

As our social structure has become more virtual, the face to face fabric that has defined connection has frayed. While some degree of connection can take place through virtual media, if a person's car breaks down, if a person has a health emergency, or just needs a hand to hold, having a person show up physically is essential.

Weintraub points out the loneliness is particularly problematic as people age. She cites J. David Creswell from Carnegie Mellon University. Older people "may have lost loved ones," or if they moved out of a longstanding neighborhood or left the work force, key social connections may have been lost as well. Weintraub notes that professor Andrew Steptoe from University College in London says "more than one third of people 65 and older live alone; 40 percent say that tv or pets are their main form of company, and 23 percent of men and 15 percent of women have contact with friends or family less than once a month."

The kinds of social structures we used to count on for connection, including as we aged, such as religious institutions, extended family, or a neighborhood community are far weaker than they were a generation ago. Meetup.com was created to encourage gathering face to face amongst people with common interests. Yet, as someone who has run meetup groups almost since meetup groups began, I have noticed that the rate of response to events has diminished, and just because someone says they are coming on-line, does not mean they are actually going to show up at the event. We seem to be used to looser engagement in face to face interactions. With so many options, including the option of staying at home and communicating on line, the barrier to face to face connection can be higher.

A huge factor in how loneliness impacts our health is the way we hold it. Creswell did an eight-week study of the impact of mindfulness on the physiological markers of loneliness, and found that those who participated in the mindfulness program "reported feeling less lonely and their genes were producing fewer inflammatory proteins." When a person can hold loneliness as an experience of the moment, and not an overwhelming, gripping force that creates helplessness and powerlessness, loneliness has less detrimental impact on their physical health.

So, developing mindfulness tools as part of our self-care will help our health in more ways than one. However, we still need and thrive when we create meaningful, consistent face to face human connection in our lives.