Human beings are social creatures by nature and need a connection with others in order to survive. Once we lose that connection, we need to find coping strategies to get our footing back. In this episode, Dr. Trish Murray discusses how isolation and loneliness affect our bodies. She emphasizes how it’s bizarre that loneliness is still a growing epidemic despite all the technological advances we are exposed to. She delves into research statistics that show how loneliness is becoming more dangerous than even diabetes and cancer. Dr. Trish shares advice on how to cope with loneliness and isolation in order to achieve better health.
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How to Cope with Isolation and Loneliness
I’m going to be discussing the topic of isolation and loneliness. I’m going to review with you particularly an article off the web from the WebMD Archives. I’m going to go through this article and share the information with you. Our mission here at Discover Health Functional Medicine Center is to make sure everyone realizes that you can take control of your health and live a more optimal healthy life. One of the things we all have to realize in order to do that is that we are social beings. We are social beings that need to interact with others.
There have been studies done that have shown that social isolation or lack of social integration and increased interpersonal conflict are associated with higher levels of inflammation markers such as C-reactive protein and interleukin 6. Both are general markers of inflammation. Before I get into the WebMD article, I want to point out that the National Institute for Health has done studies on isolation and loneliness. They had noted that close relationships are distinctly connected to inflammation and health if they are not present in someone’s life. There is a close link between personal relationships and immune function. This was found to be one of the most robust findings in the psychoneuroimmunology literature. This is an important topic and I wanted to make sure I focused on it.
Impact of Technology
In this WebMD article, the one thing they start talking about is social media and the fact that loneliness is a growing health epidemic. This is bizarre because we live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization. Rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Social media has allowed us to become more connected to other people than at any other time in history yet many Americans report feeling more lonely and isolated than ever before. In a survey conducted by the health insurer Cigna found widespread loneliness with nearly half of all Americans reporting they feel alone, isolated or left out at least some of the time. The nation’s 75 million Millennials ages 23 to 37 and Generation X adults ages 18 to 22 are lonelier than any other United States demographic. They report being in worse health than the older generations. Any parent’s goal is to try and make sure that their kids live a better life or longer than they did. That was for many generation. We’ve turned to a tipping point that we’re not going in the right direction and we’ve got to find answers to this. What’s changed the most is the amount of technology that’s out there.Studies show that social isolation or lack of social integration and increased interpersonal conflict are associated with higher levels of inflammation markers. Click To Tweet
Further statistics and in addition, about 54% of respondents said they feel no one knows them well. Four in ten reported they lack companionship. Their relationships aren’t meaningful and they are isolated from others. Douglas Nemecek, MD was Cigna’s Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Health at the time of the study. He said that the findings of the study suggest that the problem has reached epidemic proportions rivaling the risk posed by tobacco and the nation’s ever-expanding waistline. Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity. This is an issue that is becoming more important for all of us to take note of.
There was also a new report produced in partnership with the IPSOS polling company. It is based on an online survey of more than 20,000 United States adults using the well-regarded UCLA Loneliness Scale. It was to see how widespread loneliness is in America. This report came with some of these statistics or findings. Nearly half of Americans report sometimes they always feel alone, 46% and left out, 47%. Widespread social media use among younger adults contributes to loneliness but is not the only reason for it. Loneliness is being fueled by a variety of things, particularly our lifestyle habits including work demands, improper sleep schedules, not spending enough quality time with family or socializing with friends, and a lack of me time. Research has shown that people who are lonely and isolated are more likely to have heart disease and stroke. They get immune system problems and may even have a harder time recovering from cancer.
The More Connected You Are, The Longer You Live
A psychologist at Brigham Young University named Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who’s a PhD, studied loneliness and its effects on health. She has found that loneliness makes premature death more likely for people of all ages. This is not unique to the old or to the young, it’s everyone. In 2017, she presented new research linking loneliness and social isolation to a number of health risks at the American Psychology Association’s annual convention. Her paper and her presentation cited data from two particular analyses. The first one tracked 148 different research studies involving more than 300,000 participants. This study found that greater social connection is associated with 50% lower odds of early death. The more connected you are, the longer you live.
The second study she brought information from involved 70 different studies representing more than 3.4 million people. This review of multiple studies found that social isolation, loneliness or living alone boosted the chance of premature death at least as much as obesity. Estimates show that 42.6 million Americans over the age of 45 have chronic loneliness according to the AARP’s Loneliness Study. Specifically, the AARP study found that loneliness was good at predicting poor health, with those who rated their health as excellent about half as likely to be lonely as those who rated their health as poor.
One reason that’s bad news for older Americans is that more research has linked social isolation to a higher chance of having Alzheimer’s disease. This disease strikes more than 5.7 million Americans and is projected to triple by 2050. Fifty percent of adults over 80 are expected to have Alzheimer’s disease. If isolation and loneliness puts us more at risk for Alzheimer’s because we’re not using our brains to socially interact, then this a problem. These are the risks that we need to identify and there are ways to solve this. The issue is gaining more attention as a serious public health concern. In 2018, the British Prime Minister Theresa May went so far as to appoint a National Minister for loneliness.
What Can Be Done?
If the most powerful industrialized country in the world is appointing a minister of loneliness, we need to wake up and realize that this is becoming a big problem. What can be done to improve someone’s situation if you are feeling lonely or socially isolated? The number one thing to do is to increase your face to face connection with others. This is the best remedy and there are many ways to do it. It’s my emphasis that every single one of us, at least once a quarter, is to stand in your own bathroom and look in the mirror and analyze your life, health, situation, and relationships. Look in the mirror and not point fingers at other people. Ask yourself, “Am I doing everything I can to keep myself as happy, engaged, and optimally healthy as possible?”Everyone is trying to look their best on social media as if they are living the best life ever. Click To Tweet
If your answer to this when you look in the mirror is, “I don’t know if I feel as connected as I could,” then what steps are you going to take to shift that? Things you could be thinking about are getting involved in a support group. If you are feeling like you could use some support around many things, like alcohol for example, then an AA meeting might be in your future. There are support groups around health if you have diabetes. Call your local hospital and see if they have diabetes classes or diabetes education. That’s a support group around a medical condition. If you have a family member who has some addiction, but you don’t, there is the Al-Anon type of organization. These are some specific groups that are support groups in many communities. If you don’t need a support group, you could get involved in your town civic activities. You can take an educational adult class and I don’t mean online. I mean actually showing up and going to the class.
For example, at Discover Health, we have moved more towards group visits. For five weeks, we have a group of people that are going to work together and support each other. We come together and throughout the year go through classes that revolve around my concept of the DENT acronym. D for detox, E for exercise, N for nutrition, and T for transformation of stress. It’s a five-week series where ten people come together every Monday evening. Everyone went through the comprehensive elimination diet and the detox plus program for five weeks together. Everybody does better as a result of coming together because one, they’re accountable every week and two, people share with each other where they find certain things to buy or what’s working for them or what’s not. The fact of being in a group and a social setting encourages people to do better than what they would do on their own. Educational classes is huge, social groups, and volunteering.
Faith-based activities, if you go to a church or synagogue or other religious-based concepts. If you go to a meditation group, if you go to a set song that revolves around meditation, all of these things are good ideas. Political activism, if you’re a politically minded person, get involved. Book clubs, if you’re someone who is more introverted and you like to read, that’s fine. You also might want to try and find the right balance for you. One way would be is to join a book club and talk to other people about certain books that you all are sharing and reading together. If you’re a person that loves to travel, join a travel club. Travel not only by yourself or with your partner, but maybe go on a bus tour where you’re traveling with other people. All of these can be used for ways to combat loneliness and isolation.
Negative Aspect of the Online World
The web and being online is one of the biggest problems that we have. The negative aspect of it is that many people go on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and social media sharing focuses almost entirely on the best experience. Everyone is trying to look their best on social media as if they are living the best life ever. Is that reality? No. Seeing all those fabulous parties, vacations, meals, etc. enjoyed by “friends” on social media can make us feel terribly lonely. The other way to go about it is to cause the web or being online with people to be a more positive thing and help us with our social isolation. It’s not to just scan through posts or scroll through all the different feeds. We can instead interact face to face through Zoom, ways to chat, Skype or things like that. You’re actually talking and seeing another person and talking to them. If you have a friend that lives hundreds of miles away from you, one way to stay in touch is to be seen online. The old-fashioned telephone is fantastic but I’m trying to talk about better ways for us to interact with the technology and the web.
Reaching a Balance
In the research, they also found that people who followed a balanced lifestyle rated themselves less lonely. These are the people who focused on putting a dent in chronic disease through detox, exercise, nutrition, and transformation and management of stress. First of all, the concept is to reach a balance. Get the right amount of sleep. Balance your work schedule, making sure you are scheduling time to socialize with friends and family. Making sure you’re emphasizing your own individual personal “me-time” is connected to lower loneliness scores. People who say they sleep just the right amount have lower loneliness scores. This is probably because they have more energy to be present while they’re interacting with other people. They have energy left over after the workday to be able to interact with their family, children, and friends.
People who report having focused on family time are more likely to say that they feel as though they are part of a group of friends. They can find companionship when they need it. People who say they get the right amount of exercise are less likely to feel lonely. Again, probably because the exercise is increasing their energy level. If they’re exercising with others, that’s social interaction. People who say they work just the right amount are least likely to be lonely. Those that say they are working too much are probably much higher in the ranks of saying that they are lonely.
I hope this has brought some insight to you around the fact that feeling part of a community and avoiding feeling isolated is extremely important to our overall health. There are many options for us if we feel we need to work on this. At Discover Health Functional Medicine Center, we have a community. We have a quarterly event where we have people in the community come and have dinner together. We do an icebreaker and then we have presentations. We try to end with some movement. We also have exercise classes and our group visit programs. If you live in our local area and this topic has spoken to you, please reach out to us. We also do telemedicine. If anyone is interested in learning more about these topics, please reach out to us and check out my website DiscoverHealthFMC.com. Thanks for reading and I hope everyone works on trying to find a better balance in your life around your overall lifestyle.