BY HILARY LENZ, MPH, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR – A LITTLE HELP
When we talk about health and wellness, we often think first about physical and mental health, but there are other components that make up an individual’s overall health, including social, spiritual, and environmental health. None of these components operate in a vacuum; boosting your physical health can positively impact your mental and emotional health, and vice versa. When seeking to improve your health, working on your social health might not come to mind as immediately as developing a work-out routine, but it is a critical component of your overall health and wellness. Social health includes developing and maintaining satisfying interpersonal relationships, including interacting with members of your community. Social inclusion, belonging, and support are protective health promoting factors, while social exclusion and isolation are negative health determinants, according to the World Health Organization’s Social Determinants of Health. All this is to say, it is important to every individual’s overall health to form meaningful connections to combat social isolation and loneliness.
Loneliness, the subjective feeling of isolation, not belonging, or lacking companionship, and social isolation, objectively being alone with few relationships and infrequent contact, affect health in many ways – their emotional impact can lead to psychiatric disorders, their physical impact can lead to increased early mortality risk, and they take a toll on our economy. Low social connection (or social disconnection), which includes loneliness and social isolation as well as living alone and having poor quality relationships, is associated with many risks. Loneliness and lack of social connection create a risk for early death that “is comparable, and in many cases, exceeds that of other well-accepted risk factors, including smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day, obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution” (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010). Studies have also shown an association between poor social relationships and a “29 percent increase in risk of coronary heart disease and a 32 percent rise in the risk of stroke” (Health Resources & Services Administration). Social isolation among older adults also accounts for about $6.7 billion of additional federal spending annually.
The Age of Loneliness
For older adults, social disconnection is especially acute. On a regular basis, 43% of older adults feel lonely. In a study at the Department of Medicine, Division of Geriatrics, University of California at San Francisco, in adults over 60, loneliness was a predictor of functional decline and death. In older adults who report feeling lonely, there is a 45% increased risk of mortality. There is also 50% increased risk for developing dementia, 25% increased risk for cancer mortality, and 59% increased risk for functional decline.
But loneliness doesn’t just affect older adults. It’s often a U-shaped curve- high in adolescence, young adulthood, and old age, declining in middle age. No one is immune from social disconnection, and a 2018 Cigna survey demonstrated that “that nearly half of Americans always or sometimes feel alone (46%) or left out (47%). Fully 54% said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well” (Forbes.com). In the same study, Gen Z (adults 18-22) was found to have the highest loneliness score (48.3%).
Loneliness in this Age
People of all ages are more at-risk for social disconnection during the COVID-19 pandemic with stay-at-home orders and safer-at-home measures to limit in-person social interaction. And “people who feel lonely may also have weakened immune cells that have trouble fighting off viruses,” so it’s a snowball effect. Older adults, the most at-risk population for fatal complications of COVID-19, are also more at-risk for loneliness. Older adults will need to stay home longer than the larger population to mitigate their risk and often don’t have the technological resources available to younger generations to connect in new ways. The ‘social recession’ is an inevitability of the distancing measures we’ve all needed to take, but we need to remain as connected as we can.
Improving Social Health
But don’t worry – we can all improve our social health. Physical isolation doesn’t need to mean social isolation. We may be continuing to physically distance ourselves in these times of ‘safer-at-home,’ but we need to stay socially connected, and that includes including our older neighbors and not leaving anyone behind. Research conducted by AARP and the Blue Zones project, which studies areas where people live the longest, shows that those who live longer, healthier lives do so by having close relationships with their neighbors and by consistently finding new purpose as they grow older.
Connection is the key – healthy social connection creates a 50% reduction in risk for early mortality. Purpose is also an important part of the equation. Research supported by the National Institute on Aging shows that having a sense of mission and purpose in life is linked to healthier immune cells. Volunteering to help others helps people feel less lonely. Interdependence and reciprocity across generations is crucial.
Here are some tips to build, maintain, and grow relationships in our new normal:
• Continue virtually connecting with family, friends, and neighbors
• Get to know your neighbors from your porch
• Volunteer to connect with older adults and other at-risk neighbors over the phone
• Volunteer to help older adults and other at-risk neighbors to access essentials (through an established organization like A Little Help to reduce fraud threats to your neighbors)
• Drop off a Kindness Kit of activities for a neighbor
• Write letters, send cards, create and send art
• Create art and put it in your windows for neighbors to see on walks
• Support your local business owners as best you can
• When in doubt, reach out
Social health is vital. We’re all in this together – in this pandemic and this community life. Let’s be socially healthy together.