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The health toll of being lonely

A recent study published in the journal Health Psychology, based on interview responses from more than 19,000 married people up to age 90 between 1978 and 2010, suggests that married people who rated their unions as “very happy” or “pretty happy” were about 20 percent less likely of dying early.

The report seems consistent with other findings suggesting that a supportive marriage helps reinforce a couple’s mutual psychological and physical health.

Speaking with Time magazine, study co-author Mark Whisman, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, notes that marriage provides people with meaningful roles and identities, as well as a purpose in life and a sense of security. Such findings underscore our essential need for social support, be it a spouse or close family and friends.

What this recent study shows is that the quality and quantity of close social relationships are strong indicators of a person’s physical and mental health as they age. What it also highlights is the link that exists between social isolation and poorer physical and mental health.

It is an important point because loneliness continues to be on the rise in the U.S.

According to a new report from the AARP Foundation, today more than a third of adults over 45 are lonely. That adds up to nearly 48 million Americans. We need to wake up and start thinking of social isolation as we would a serious but treatable condition — because it is. As the study notes, reaching out to others is a healthy habit to get into. Those who qualified as lonely tend to have fewer people with whom they say they can “discuss matters of personal importance” or turn to for support. Finding needed social support is the key to recovery. The survey suggests that when it comes to social contacts, more is better.

An unrelated study recently released by the Health Foundation in London also found that people who had consistently high levels of social connectedness were 9 percent less likely to fall behind on preventive services and screenings than those with limited social networks.

As I pointed out last March, loneliness is a very powerful trigger. It can trigger stress, and it can trigger depression or a depressive episode. All of these reactions, when drawn out, come with negative health consequences.

Living a long life should be a blessing, not a stage of life defined by loss of vigor, increasing frailty, rising disease risk, failing cognitive faculties and isolation.

According to a series of reports in Time magazine on the secrets of living longer, “the end of life is a nonnegotiable thing. The quality and exact length of that life, however, is something we very much have the power to shape.”

Eating well and staying active, staying socially engaged, investing in and placing proper value on our relationships, staying curious and being a lifelong learner are all signposts along the way to a better, longer and healthier life.

Living life with a sense of purpose is the essential ingredient. Having a sense of purpose is linked to positive health outcomes including better sleep, fewer strokes and heart attacks, and lower risks of dementia, disability and premature death.

We all probably know that exercise helps people live longer. A new study by the Cleveland Clinic takes this notion even further. Researchers found that a sedentary lifestyle is worse for your health than smoking, diabetes and heart disease. The biggest revelation of the study was that fitness leads to longer life, with no limit to the benefit of aerobic exercise.

The benefits of exercise were found across all ages and in both men and women, whether participants in the study were in their 40s or their 80s.

The challenge is not only to find the discipline to do these things routinely, but also to ensure that this pathway is available to everyone.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness.

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