I have been writing about the hazards of loneliness and the benefits of companionship for many years. While this subject is a passion of mine, there are many others who are concerned about the subject as well.
For decades, when researchers studied centenarian populations, or communities where many individuals are at least 100 years old, they noted many common factors. One of the major factors, however, consistently appeared to be the presence of close-knit communities.
The Importance of Companionship
Because companionship is so important, I included a section about it in my first book, I’ve Got Some Good News and Some Bad News: YOU’RE OLD. Also, socialization and its antithesis, loneliness, have such a profound impact on quality of life and health span that I include them in my Power of 5 Formula as sex, socialization or spirituality.
Each of these concepts relates to closeness and the quality of our relationships. This can be closeness as exhibited by intimacy between two individuals, closeness in a family context or in a community or tribal way, or even in a relationship with a higher power in a spiritual sense.
How the COVID Pandemic Has Impacted Loneliness
The COVID pandemic has had a profound negative impact on the pre-existing problem of loneliness. US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy talks about this in his book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. You can also read more in this article.
Many of us who previously worked in an environment with others regularly benefited from that camaraderie. During the isolation imposed by the restrictions of the pandemic, loneliness and its negative effects compounded. Also, working in healthcare can be isolating, which puts healthcare workers (myself included) at greater risk.
Dr. Kerri Palamara, MD, FACP, also talks about this as director of the Center for Physician Well-being at Massachusetts General Hospital and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. In the article called “10 Tips to Beat Loneliness at Work” in the June 2021 issue of the ACP Internist, she said, “This is not a new problem in our workplace, but it is one that we’re newly understanding as researchers spend more time diving into this and one that we are newly experiencing as our world, our societies and our workplaces change.”
What medical science has discovered is that the absence of socialization (one S in the Power of 5 Formula, which includes sex or spirituality) is a health hazard. It is often referred to as loneliness. Some say loneliness may carry a similar risk to health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.
Why Does Loneliness Negatively Affect Our Health?
Researchers have noted higher levels of inflammatory markers in the bloodstreams of individuals who are lonely. The impact of these markers increases one’s risk of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases as well as some types of cancer.
The good news, though, is that, because we are aware, we can take steps to mitigate the risk. Consider the interventions we have for cancer such as colonoscopies for colon cancer and mammographies for breast cancer. Additionally, we check blood pressure and cholesterol levels to monitor the risk of cardiovascular disease.
How is Loneliness Measured?
One way to measure loneliness is with the UCLA loneliness scale. It is available online, and you may access it here.
Because we know loneliness poses a risk, we can develop interventions to reduce the inherent risks. Any intervention requires intention. Individuals must make concerted efforts to break free of the bonds of isolation or family and friends can intervene to help those who are isolated.
What Can You Do to Reduce Loneliness?
While it isn’t always easy to reduce loneliness, it doesn’t have to be complicated either. Here are some ways you can add more socialization into your life:
- Become involved in or reacquainted with a spiritual organization such as church, synagogue, etc.
- Join a club—it’s a great way to interact with others
- Extend an invitation to a friend or neighbor and meet for coffee or to share a meal
- Be kind to others and express gratitude when opportunities arise
- As they say on TV game shows, “Phone a friend!”
Remember, reducing loneliness takes intention and action. Unless you are going to die tomorrow, there is no excuse. Get out there and do it.
To a Long and Healthy Life,
David Bernstein, MD
P.S. Remember to follow Melissa in the Power of 5 Test Kitchen and join in the happenings!