Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Loneliness causes stress and ill health

Now that the holidays are over, the rounds of parties and family gatherings done, you have returned to your regular routine, do you find yourself isolated, disconnected, lonely?

You're not alone in being lonely. More people live alone today than ever before. In 1950 only 10% of Americans lived in a one-person household; according to the most recent census figures, that number has risen to 25% - 27.2 million households. A study printed last summer in "The American Sociological Review" revealed that the number of trusted friends an average person had dropped from about three friends in 1985 down to two. The number of people who admitted to having no close friend to talk to or confide in at all was a whopping twenty-five percent! Another nineteen percent said they had only one close person with whom they could discuss personal matters, and that one was usually a spouse. If they lose that one person, it would create a devastating hole in their lives.

Oddly enough, the thing that gives people the widest range of connectivity may also be causing the highest level of personal isolation: the internet. Instead of getting out and meeting the new neighbors, people stay inside and email an old friend across the country. Instead of getting out and meeting other students, college freshmen often stay in their rooms and chat online with friends from high-school. It's not all internet use, of course. Young children stay inside and play video games instead of going outside to play with their friends, and the elderly often can't get around easily enough on their own to get out and connect with other people.

This kind of isolation and disassociation can lead to a host of illnesses for those of you in your middle and later years, and often manifests as anxiety and depression.

One of the most severe illnesses that is seriously affected by loneliness in middle-aged and older Americans is heart disease. In and of itself, heart disease can cause depression over your health and high levels of anxiety over your health-care and financial situation. After a heart attack or stroke, many patients recover more slowly or suffer further illness if they are isolated.

"A study of heart attack survivors showed that men who lived alone had twice the average death rate in the first year. Another large study found that people were more likely to die in the nine years after a heart attack, regardless of their physical condition, if they did not talk to their doctors, rarely visited friends or family, and did not belong to a voluntary organization.

"What matters, apparently, is not so much the size of a person’s social circle as a belief that help will be available when needed. People who say they lack friends in times of need are more likely to die or have a recurrent cardiovascular event, whether they are living alone or not. One study found that hospitalized female (although not male) patients with heart failure were more likely to avoid rehospitalization and death if they had someone to discuss their problems with and to help them make decisions." Source: Harvard Medical International)

Loneliness is not just about connecting with people – you can do that online quite effectively. It is about being with other people and getting that good, healthy dose of friendly, "I care about you and what happens to you" energy. There is a lot to be said about being in the company of friends where you can see the smiles, hear the laughter, feel the touch on arm or shoulder, share the hug at the end of the evening – and, yes, that one goes for you guys, too! Lonely people often don't take good care of themselves; they don't eat well or sleep well, the don't get proper exercise, they just "veg out" which is certainly an apt description of someone whose mental and physical functions are allowed to atrophy.

Participating in an active network of friends is so health-full! It reduces blood pressure, reduces anxiety and depression, and reduces stress hormones; it also helps to reduce bad cholesterol which can be raised by stress as well as poor eating and exercise habits. It boosts the immune system, and makes you happy which also brings a host of positive and healthy "side effects" like a longer life, raised levels of good hormones like serotonin, better mental and physical function; it helps you break bad habits, encourages attendance at social functions which encourages exercise (at the very least, you have to walk from your car to the site of the function!). Just knowing you have a few people you can call upon in case of emergency or talk to when you need to bend an ear, can make a huge difference in your level of health and wellbeing.

So, how do you get yourself out there? There are so many different possibilities; either join or start a hobby group. If you need a place to meet, check with your local public library – they often have available a room or two for local group meetings. They also are a good source on community happenings and you may find an established social group by asking at the library. If you can't find a group that supports your interests, start one! Figure out what kind of people you want to bring together, create a flexible schedule of meetings (depending on the schedules of the people who are interested in joining, you may need to revise your meeting schedule if you want them to participate), and have a suitable place to meet; the local library for a writers' group, a nearby empty field for a radio-controlled airplane group, etc. If you can, include healthy snacks…good food seems to be a universal facet of good companionship. When you have the foundation set, put an ad in the personals section of the newspaper with a brief description of the proposed group's interests and a contact number, put up fliers at the library, store, any shop that might cater to people with this interest (i.e. a flier in a hobby shop for people interested in joining that RC airplane group), your church bulletin if they allow announcements like that. Be ready to answer the phone…you are sure to find a few people who share your interests!

One of the best ways to meet other people and also help other people and your community is to become a volunteer. There are so many places in need of help, and so many ways to share your talents with others – schools, hospitals, shelters, Big Brother and Sister groups, Little Brother and Sister groups (I recently read about one of these in Boston, MA – each member "adopts" a senior citizen in need of companionship – what a great idea!), sports groups for kids, Meals On Wheels….the list is almost endless.

There is another perspective on loneliness, too. If you aren't the lonely one, you probably know someone who is; don't wait, don't say, "Oh, I should call so and so, I'll do it next week"….reach out right now and call that person, offer to include him or her on your next trip to the grocery store, or offer to take them out to lunch, or treat them to a movie once in a while. For a small investment in time, you will make a huge difference in another person's health and wellbeing.

So, get out there, have fun, and enjoy your new friends!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insightful comments on loneliness. I found your article very helpful and it has encouraged me to reach out to a friend who I believe is lonley. Maybe coffee and a few laughs would help! I have a life full of human contact and happiness but your comments made me realize that there are many people out there, some of whom I have crossed paths with, who may truly be suffering and in need of a little human contact.

Michelle said...

Thank you for stopping by. :-)

Yes, coffee and a few laughs (laughter can be very healing!) can make a world of difference to someone who is lonely.

Best wishes to you, and good luck to your friend!