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It will come as no surprise to most of you that according to the Dietary Guidelines of America’s Advisory committee, “obesity is the single greatest threat to public health in this century.” But there is a new threat emerging that some researchers believe might have even a greater impact on our physical, emotional and cognitive well-being and even our longevity. Actually, it is not really a new threat, it has always been with us but it is increasingly more prevalent, having doubled since the 1980’s. What is this new risk factor? Loneliness.

In 1988, in an article published in the journal Science, authors House, Landous and Umberson stated that “Social relationships, or the lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health – rivaling the effects of well-established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids and physical activity. More recently, led by Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University, researcher reviewed the results of over 200 studies in the US and around the world and concluded that “there is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase the risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of  many leading health indicators. With an increasingly aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increases. Indeed, many nations around the world suggest that we are facing a “loneliness epidemic.”

Social isolation can influence health in a number of ways. First of all, people who are lonely are less likely to live a healthy lifestyle. They are less likely to be physically active, or to eat well, and more likely to smoke, be sleep deprived and consume excess alcohol. They are also, independent of their lifestyles, more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, higher markers of chronic inflammation and impaired immune function.

The most important question is what can be done about it. Developing strong social connections for those who don’t already have them can be easier said than done. The Global Council on Brain Health with support from AARP has published a booklet entitled The Brain and Social Connectedness which made several recommendations to help build and sustain strong social connections. Here are some of their recommendations:

    1. Join a group that focuses on something that you really enjoy. For example, I recently met a guy that lives in my neighborhood and quickly found out that we share an interest in fishing. He invited me to attend our neighborhood fishing club that happened to be meeting that night. While I have lived in the neighborhood for over 20 years and had thought about going in the past, I just never got around to it. But based on his invitation, I decided to go. I not only had a great time, and picked up a few new tips, I met a bunch of other great guys at the meeting that I will enjoy getting to know better now that I have decided to join the club.
    2. If you feel lonely, try to change this by making new connections by seeking different opportunities to engage with others. A good friend of mine had, many years ago stopped going to church on a regular basis. Sadly, his wife passed away a couple years ago. He quickly became lonely and isolated. After a few months, he decided it was time to start going to church again. While he benefited spiritually by going back, the real benefit was that it got him interacting with people again. It didn’t take long to reconnect with some old friends and, make some new ones. He now goes to church services regularly and sees some of his church friends socially as well.
    3. Make an effort to speak with relatives, friends or neighbors on a regular basis. While face to face contact is best. Talking on the phone is helpful as well, and even email contact is better than no contact.
    4. Put yourself in situations where you come intact with and can interact with people such as stores, parks, recreation centers etc.
    5. Take small steps to connect with others. Share a smile a day with someone, show interest in someone by asking how they are, hold a door for someone or practice a random act of kindness.
    6. Volunteer your time to a non-profit organization you support.
    7. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Sometimes talking to a mental health professional in your area can be very helpful and they also will be able to refer you to other resources available in your community.

Like other health habits. Staying socially connected takes time and effort.  But taking steps to preserve and or build social connections might not only improve the quality of your life it might actually extend it.

We recognize that there is no cookie-cutter approach to achieving ideal health and wellness, especially as we age. But, there are a collection of research-supported behaviors that show healthy living can be achieved at any age. From June 24 through July 1, H3 is partnering with Dr. Dean and Dr. Ayesha Sherzai, authors of “The Alzheimer’s Solution” and founders of the Healthy Minds Initiative, for our AgeWell Program. When your experience our AgeWell Program, you’ll have an understanding of the importance of mobility over “fitness”, the significance of your diet in how much energy you have and how you feel, and what other factors can make an enormous impact on your health as you continue your journey in healthy living. Call us at 800.292.2440 or visit our AgeWell Program page for additional information about H3’s AgeWell Program