Social isolation now shown to be harmful to physical health as well as mental health

by CynthiaYockey on August 2, 2010

Yikes! I’m trying to figure out how long I’ve been socially isolated and it’s in the range of 18-to-25 years. I’ll be 57 in October, so that’s most of my adult life. It’s been for lots of reasons — Margaret’s multiple sclerosis, my undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea (because it reduced my energy and earning power), my uppityness about equality for us as a lesbian couple and for Margaret as a wheelchair user — which, I am not making this up, got us run out of the diversity-supportin’ lesbian community by lesbians at the top of the disability rights movement — heck, I’ll even toss in feng shui because of the breathtaking whack our social circle took after we moved into a condo where most of the “helpful people” area was missing.

I just promised in my “Save Stogie from foreclosure” post that I would start discussing my various challenges so that it is possible for my gentle readers to see how what I write matches my life. I wasn’t expecting one of them to be in tonight’s Hot Air Headlines. Social isolation already was known to have a negative effect on mental health. New research shows that social isolation affects physical health, too, across all age groups:

HAVING a poor social network is just as likely to send you to an early grave as smoking or alcohol abuse.

A scientific review of 148 previous studies involving more than 300,000 people found that those with adequate social relationships were 50 per cent more likely to be alive after an average follow-up period of nearly eight years, compared to more socially isolated people.

Being socially disconnected — a loose term usually taken to mean having few good friends or strong family relationships — was said to be equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day and to heavy drinking — of six units of alcohol a day — the scientists involved said.

It was also worse for someone’s health than such better-recognised health risks as avoiding exercise, and twice as bad for one’s health as being obese.

Eeek! I’m obese, too — but I do exercise because it helps me think more clearly and get more done. I’ll explain my new diet regime another time, but I’ve lost over 13 pounds in the last 40 days. If that seems modest to you, bear in mind it represents a shift of about 1,000 calories per day. And then you try it.

As for how a social network improves its members health, the scientists speculated there were two mechanisms:

The support of other people may reduce the harmful effects of stress, and the influence of others may also encourage behaviour that contributes to good health.

They also speculated that isolation could reduce immune function.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, one of Dr. Smith’s colleagues, said: “When someone is connected to a group and feels responsibility for other people, that sense of purpose and meaning translates to taking better care of themselves and taking fewer risks.”

I would not have survived as a blogger without having met my fellow conservative bloggers in person at CPAC in 2009. It also was a big boost to go to CPAC 2010 and make more friends. Blogging, Facebook and Twitter are giving me access to social connections I wouldn’t otherwise have — they are a huge blessing.

I’m amused that Holt-Lunstad’s explanation of how social connectedness makes us healthier is so altruistic, since I gather from watching television that people who take very good care of themselves do so with the intention of improving and expanding their social connections — including, but not limited to, what are the kids calling it these days? is it still “getting laid”?

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  • You have a social network, quite extensive, too. It’s simply electronic. We have more friends than we can shake a stick at, it doesn’t matter if we can ever actually shake hands and hug.

    I have this itty-bitty little blog, it’s hardly worth having, especially since i write far more words in comments to other blogs. Yet I’m sure that if the pensions that we thought would be so lavish when we retired would let us travel further than the mailbox, I could go on a very long vacation, driving every day, and stop and see a new friend two or three times a day. So could you. Actually, you would be hard put to make any time on your “vacation”, you have more electronic friends than I, plus you’re prettier.

    What is this “getting laid” you speak of?

    • CynthiaYockey

      Peter,

      I didn’t realize that I had a social network from this blog until I needed help in May and so many readers and fellow bloggers came to my aid. Before that, I WAS feeling alone in the world and like I was talking in the dark when I wrote posts.

      Can you use Google Earth? You are used to adventure — I bet you would love it.

      I’m so glad you have a pension. I figure you also have health insurance — I’m glad about that, too. Just so you know my situation, I don’t have a pension, retirement savings, or health insurance. I’ll get health care when I start making money and can pay for it. As for the rest of my situation, I am VERY motivated to regain my health and figure out how to make a living. I have to support fiscal conservatism and fight hard for capitalism because they provide the foundation and structure that make that a possible dream.

      Cynthia

      P.S.

      Re “prettier”: thank you!

  • Liz

    Yes, you’re more at risk for many reason (and I’m not minimising those), but I wouldn’t worry so much. Obese people who are fit – as half of them are – have roughly the same mortality rates as normal weight people. Even if you don’t lose weight, the exercise and healthier diet will help a lot.

    Also, you do seem to have strong family bonds, like in one of your previous posts about your dad. (One word: aaawwwww…)

    There is, however, a question of causation and correlation. Are people healthier because they have better connections, or do they have better connections because they’re physically able to do more things and people are more drawn to them? Do they just look prettier? Poorer people are less likely to be healthy, but more likely to live in overcrowded housing, which makes people withdraw and isolate themselves.

    • CynthiaYockey

      Liz,

      Thank you about the obesity/fitness and strong family bonds. I need to lose the weight because it’s heavy and hurts my back.

      You are right that it’s tough to sort out the causation and correlation here.

      Cynthia

  • I R A Darth Aggie

    I think social connectedness is over rated. Think about it, where do you get most of your stress? other people.

  • Ad rem

    Love ya’ for “keepin’ it real” Cynthia! Hey, 13 pounds in 40 days is nothing to sneeze at either. Anyone who hasn’t had to diet has no idea as to the degree of suckitude involved in shaving a 1,000 calories off one’s daily intake. I’ve lost 8 pounds in the last two weeks, and have been on a 900 calorie a day diet. The worst part is trying to get to sleep at night when you’re still hungry.

    I’ve got a big sign up on the refrigerator door…”Nothing tastes as good as thin feels!” (Sigh….if I could just eat the tomatoes and ignore the pasta.) Keep posting on your progress too….your efforts can be an inspiration to all of us “horizontally challenged”. 😉

    • CynthiaYockey

      Ad rem,

      What an achievement! I’m so proud of you! I have a tip from ayurveda, the traditional medical system of India, about trying to get to sleep at night when you’re still hungry. Ayurveda points out that 10 to 2 — both mid-day and midnight — is when our metabolism is highest. So noon is the best time for the largest meal of the day. The metabolism goes up at night and ideally operates to metabolize out toxins and what-not. If you stay up after 10 pm, you feel more alert AND you feel hungryas pitta increases. So the trick is to get to bed well before 10 pm. Which I’m not doing right now since it’s 11:13 pm, but I recommend anyway.

      Also, yes, if it will inspire you and my other dear gentle readers, I’ll post progress reports. The glorious news for today is that I wore pants, a belt and a shirt to tonight’s Rutledge fundraiser that I haven’t been able to fit into for at least 10 years. (!) I’m not expecting good news from the scales tomorrow, though because, um, it was a dessert fundraiser and, ahem, there were seriously yummy things with chocolate. I shall return to austerity and virtue tomorrow.

      Cynthia

      Cynthia

  • Janis

    The problem with that is … that most people are so dumb and irritating to be around. Seriously, what’s worse for my health — being by myself in peace and quiet or surrounded by chattering idiots?

    *sigh*

    • CynthiaYockey

      Janis,

      Make a list of the qualities you want in your friends — it seems to help the universe bring people like that into your life. The book by Stuart Lichtman advertised here has more details. But you are quite right — it is perfectly fine to avoid the company of people who are draining or foolish.

      Cynthia

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