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When it comes to living a long and healthy life, we often turn to diet and exercise to increase our longevity. Neglecting the quality of our social relations, we look for magic-pill solutions to postpone our physical decline.
Although physical health has received a great deal of attention recently, spawning a massive industry around diet and exercise, it turns out we might be better off focusing on our social health. Recent research looked at the impact of loneliness as a risk factor for mortality and found:
Current evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity.
The researchers also found loneliness is comparable to other health indicators, including substance abuse, responsible sexual behavior, mental health, injury and violence, environmental quality, immunization, and access to health care.
Although studies are now mounting regarding the risk of social isolation, it is a relatively neglected issue. The researchers note:
The current status of research on the risks of loneliness and social isolation is similar to that of research on obesity 3 decades ago.
Luckily, sociology is often incorporated into medical school training, giving clinicians an understanding of how our bodies, minds, and social environments are interrelated. There has been progress in this regard, but in practice, physicians often emphasize the biological component at the expense of the psychological and the social.
If we want to understand human thriving, the social component is essential. According to an 80 year long Harvard study that followed a group of individuals since their college years, the quality of our close social relations is the best predictor of health and happiness:
…people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.
In a TED Talk on the study, Robert Waldinger emphasizes the dangers of social isolation, stating:
Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.
This is all the more concerning, given the increasing rates of social isolation in affluent societies, particularly among the aging population. Modern conveniences allow us to live more independently than ever, but we need to consider the costs to our mental and physical health. We need to consider the health of our communities.
I use the term ‘social health’ because our societies are living organisms. Like a physical organism, social life can develop pathological characteristics, resulting in damage to the individual parts that make up the organism. Although loneliness is experienced as a personal problem, it is connected to larger public issues.
If you’ve been following my work up to this point, you will notice this is the central issue I’ve been discussing, particularly in relation to veterans issues, and more recently, addiction and social media.
To reflect this central focus, you may notice I’ve made some blog name and design updates. Feel free to check out the new homepage, as well.
As always, I greatly appreciate your thoughts and feedback in the comments section. Thanks for reading!