Girl Planting seeds

Social Connection


By Ben Kligler, MD
Normally when we talk about environmental health we think about the physical environment: what kinds of substances we are exposed to in our homes or at work, what kind of foods we choose, and what the physical environment we live in is like in terms of air and water pollution, and most recently in terms of the impact of climate change. But there is another environment that actually has a huge impact on our health: our social environment. Of course it goes without saying that 20 months of COVID and social distancing have not helped strengthen that part of our environment: social isolation and loneliness were already a health issue before the pandemic hit, and recent studies suggest that loneliness and associated depression may now be as high as 30% in the U.S. population. And kids are not immune from this loneliness epidemic: a 2019 survey in the United Kingdom found that one in 10 kids ages 10 to 15 reported significant loneliness, and this was pre-COVID.
But why should we be concerned about this? After all, doesn’t everyone feel lonely at times? A recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report suggests that social isolation and loneliness can have real and significant consequences for our health:
  • Increased risk of shorter lifespan—perhaps as big an increase as we see with smoking
  • A 50% increase in risk of dementia in older people, who are especially vulnerable to social isolation
  • Higher ratesof heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety and suicide
Our society tends to lean towards valuing stubborn independence, solving problems on our own, and not ever asking for help—that toughness is part of our communal image of the American way, especially for men. But as it turns out, that toughness and the isolation that can come with it might be bad for our health.
But here is the good news: once we recognize loneliness, either in ourselves or in others, there are many things we can to do address it. The first step is to ask the question: how are you doing? Are you lonely? How are you managing the social distancing we all still have to put up with to some degree? Asking the question of people in our life—older relatives, neighbors, our children—is the most important part of the cure. The idea that someone cares and someone recognizes how I feel can go a long way toward relieving the acute problem. And as it turns out, reaching out in an empathetic way is not only good for the recipient but for the person reaching as well: Dr. Kelli Harding, author of The Rabbit Effect, writes about how acts of kindness can help reduce stress, support immune function, and improve quality of life.
There is lots we can do at the community level to help alleviate loneliness in the lives around us as well, even during COVID times. If social contact  through school for our kids is limited for now, what about starting an outdoor activity program in your town or neighborhood? Communities of faith and local social service organizations can be a great resource, and often have buddy programs to provide contact for elders who are stuck at home. Think about volunteering with your spouse or your children for one of those programs. And just to be clear: sometimes more than a kind word or an outstretched hand is needed: we also need to think about when and if a person—including ourselves---might also need help from a mental health professional.
At some point—hopefully soon—the social restrictions imposed on us by COVID will ease. But loneliness and social isolation have always been a challenge, and still will be when the pandemic is behind us. Hopefully one of the gifts we will take from this difficult time is an increased awareness of how important connection is for us and for the people around us.

Source: 1. in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. Ashington DC: The National Academies Press.
2. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. 2020. Social Isolation and Lonelines


Dr._KliglerDr. Kligler is the Medical Advisor for The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center®. He is also the National Director of the Integrative Health Coordinating Center for the Veterans Health Administration and Research Director for the Office of Patient Centered Care & Cultural Transformation. He was the founding  Director  of the Beth Israel Fellowship Program in Integrative Medicine, and teaches in the Beth Israel Residency Program in Urban Family Practice. Dr. Kligler is the author of Curriculum in Complementary Therapies: A Guide for the Medical Educator, and co-editor of Integrative Medicine: Principles for Practice, a textbook published by McGraw-Hill. He is also Co-Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed journal Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing.
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