There are eight pillars of health. One that does not get as much airtime as movement, sleep and diet is relationships. According to Medical News Today “Two new meta-analyses from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, UT, reveal that loneliness and social isolation may increase the risk of premature death by up to 50 percent”.
The headline figure is a relative one and hence overstates the problem. A 50% increase can be from 1% to 1.5% which in reality is a 0.5% increase. However, this research picks up on much previous work and makes a critical point.
Human beings are social by nature. We live in families and communities because it is in our nature. We seek the company of others as it brings us joy and contentment. Likewise, bad relationships are a major problem and can lead to a myriad of problems.
This work has sought to separate the concepts of loneliness from social isolation and finds (perhaps not surprisingly) that you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. There is nothing wrong with spending time alone. In fact, we all need this but that is different to feeling lonely.
Social isolation is a problem in bigger cities where many do not even know their neighbours. This is compounded when people move away from family for work or study reasons. Political correctness makes it worse by seeking to view every invitation for a meal as some form of harassment.
It is a strange paradox that in a word that seems to be getting smaller and where everyone can be connected via their smart phone, that we feel increasingly alone. Social media connection can be real but it can also be shallow and even fake. Certainly, modern technology has made our ability to connect with friends and family in faraway places simple.
But this should be in addition to not instead of, connection with people by being in the same place at the same time. Getting together for a meal, a cup of coffee or simply a chat is still something which humans need. It is sometimes not recognised as such until we don’t have it.
There is also plenty of work which shows that (in the main) those who are in a stable relationship tend to have better health. Some of this is a direct effect. Some is indirect. When we are alone we may be less likely to cook and hence get take away food. We may be less inclined to exercise or feel a need to keep in shape. And yes, the reverse can also apply. Nothing is absolute in health.
Relationship building is a two-way street. It may behove those of us with strong ties, to be on the lookout for those who are isolated and see how we can bring them into existing groups. For those who find themselves alone, waiting for the phone to ring is not the best option. We need to be a bit proactive. Go to places where you might meet people with similar interests. This could be through sport, music or any other activity.
In this digital world, if friends or family are far away, get on the net and connect.
Relationships are a like a garden. They need tending and at times weeding. This is an active not passive process and is good for your health. Get involved!
Dr Joe Kosterich MBBS is an author, speaker, media presenter and health industry consultant, who wants you to be healthy and get the most out of life. Dr Joe also gives practical, motivational health talks for the general public and organisations where he is known as “An independent doctor who talks about health”. His latest book “60 minutes to Better Health” is available on Amazon.