How loneliness hurts health

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Dear Reader,

Valentine’s Day is a poignant reminder that more of us than ever before live by ourselves. And even if we’re not alone, many of us feel lonely, often painfully so.

This hurts our health. It even may be killing us.

So this month, some balms for the heart, big and small, that may help our physical health too.

An epidemic of loneliness threatens  happiness and health

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Around the globe — but especially in the United States — developed societies have shifted from agrarian to industrial economies and from pop-and-mom farms and big families to bursting cities with many single-person households.

More than a quarter of Americans, many in urban areas, live alone now. Many do so because they choose and can afford to do so. Singles cluster among the old and young.

This affects many aspects of life, including our work, housing, entertainment, transportation, and how, where, and what we eat. It adds billions of dollars to our spending to care for seniors.

As social animals, we’re also struggling with the negatives of being so much by ourselves.

Many of us, with hectic and demanding careers, march through the day locked up alone in offices or work cubicles, staring at electronic screens. We grab lunch by ourselves and eat it at the desk. We gulp down a fast-food dinner in solitude, multi-tasking all the way, pounding at the laptop with unfinished work chores. Then, it’s off to restless sleep, and too little of it.

The seclusion routine may be even more intense for those striving in the “gig” economy, because there may not be a workplace for them to head off to or colleagues to work with day by day.

In many jobs, even our interactions with colleagues or bosses may be clipped, formal, and with few human  — as opposed to business-related — exchanges.

There is, of course, a crucial distinction between solitude and loneliness. People can do fine if they want to be by themselves and are comfortable or even happy with it, for short periods or even a lifetime.

But many single people experience a detrimental social isolation and loneliness. So, too, can people in unsatisfying marriages and unhappy households.

Although conventional wisdom suggests that the old suffer social isolation and loneliness most acutely — and it is a clear woe of the aged, especially as death claims spouses and friends — young people also struggle with solitude and bad feelings about it.

Recent surveys have recorded a doubling, to 40 percent from 20 percent, among older adult respondents who say they feel lonely and bad. Those in poor health, and in difficult mental health (with anxiety or depression issues), as well as those with less education, suffer loneliness’ sting greatly. Social isolation is a torment for those with debilitating, chronic illness and their caregivers.

The research is building as to just how harmful loneliness and social isolation and alienation can be.

They have been shown, the New York Times reported, “to impair health by raising levels of stress hormones and inflammation, which in turn can increase the risk of heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia and even suicide attempts. Seniors who said they felt left out, isolated or lacked companionship saw declines in their daily ability to care for themselves, with bathing, grooming, and meal preparation. Their deaths increased over a six-year study period relative to people who reported none of these feelings.”

The newspaper also has reported on the work of John T. Cacioppo, an award-winning psychologist at the University of Chicago. In one of his studies of middle-aged and older adults in the Chicago area, he and his colleagues found that those who scored high on a widely used psychological assessment for loneliness ate much more of fatty foods than those who scored low.

He has written in his book, Loneliness: “Is it any wonder that we turn to ice cream or other fatty foods when we’re sitting at home feeling all alone in the world. We want to soothe the pain we feel by mainlining sugar and fat content to the pleasure centers of the brain, and absent of self-control, we go right at it.”

Druv Khullar, a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, reported in the New York Times’ research-driven “Upshot” feature that individuals with less social connection have:

He cited research showing that “isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent. Another analysis, with data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people, found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years” — an effect largest in middle age.

Khullar also said studies have shown that “loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions. These effects start early: Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.

Social isolation increases spending for care for the elderly. The AARP has estimated it adds $6.7 billion in additional Medicare costs. With the nation graying, with dementia cases rising, and with so many single adults — many without family or friends to support them —older Americans may be in dire shape when it comes to finding long-term assistance so they can maintain independent lives.

Big and small responses may reverse harms of social isolation and alienation

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In another day, in a breezy 1950s rom-com movie suitable for Valentine’s Day viewing, when confronted with a challenge like loneliness and its major harms to health, someone like Doris Day might  flash a 500-watt smile and croon, “Que, será, será, whatever will be will be,” and a happy ending magically would ensue.

In the real world of 2018, that isn’t happening. But good things are happening. Consider these global, high-level responses:

At the individual level, there are ways to better cope with isolation, alienation, and loneliness, experts say.

First, recognize it in yourself, then get over the stigma and set aside any wooly headed pride or machismo about being alone and feeling bad about it. Then, look for ways to increase not just the quantity but also the quality of your social interactions.

People dear to us, it is a fact of life, move, move on, and even die. It requires energy and commitment to make and keep friends, and it may be more challenging to do so after age 30. Then again, as every grown-up knows, childhood also can be a time of great, constant change — including of schools but maybe also of homes and peers, too — and yes, upsets. This can make it a challenge, too, for youngsters, and especially already awkward feeling teens, to build a meaningful and lasting group of friends.

In adulthood, it can be too easy to get swept up in harried routines, only to look up and discover you’re dissatisfied with your situation — and alone or lonely. Cacioppo, the psychologist who has researched in this area for decades, says people should think about following an EASE planExtend yourself, have an Action plan, Seek collectives (people through groups), and Expect good things so you don’t undercut your good efforts with morose thoughts.

It’s important to keep socializing, constantly. Get up from the desk and don’t just sit all day. Walk up the stairs, around the block, and especially in your workplace to talk, face to face, with colleagues you might otherwise phone or email. Force yourself to take regular lunches, dinners, and appropriate after-hours occasions to gather with colleagues, especially if you’re a free-lancer, consultant, or creative type in the gig economy. A colleague says a mentor in such endeavors warned him that it’s far too easy to “go feral,” working alone at home and neglecting the socialization that occurs, say, in an office (this can include showering regularly and shaving for some). You do need to ensure your health supports your relationship building, so get regular exams and treatments so you see, hear, and can walk as well as you can.

It’s key, too, to find deep and meaningful relationships that may challenge you and force you to be more alive and to grow. Some of these may be spiritual. Translation: You may wish to give church or other place of worship a chance. Or your bonding may be accompanied by activity that helps connect you with others. This may include everything from playing in a regular poker game to bowling to exploring the Himalayas. You may wish to volunteer so you can feel good about yourself even as you’re increasing your human interaction.

If it’s appropriate, don’t feel ashamed or stigmatized about seeking professional help to determine what may block you from giving and receiving love, especially with family or intimate partners. You may find you’re e-device obsessed or addicted, and, though online contacts may, in this crazy age, provide you with random, occasional sexual hookups, this isn’t the course you’ll probably need to ensure you against your isolation and loneliness.

May you, instead, celebrate on Feb. 14, and, indeed, for the month, year, and a long time thereafter with a dear Valentine who cherishes and completes you and for whom you do the same. And may this and many other deep and fulfilling relationships keep you always healthy and well!

IN THIS ISSUE

An epidemic of loneliness threatens not only our happiness but also our health

Big and small responses may reverse harms of social isolation and alienation

Valentine splurges can be hard on waist and wallet

Americans’ sex lives: Full of contradictions

BY THE NUMBERS


27%

Estimated percentage (2013) of U.S. adults living alone, up from 5% in the 1920s


40%

Percentage of older U.S. adults responding in polling that they feel lonely and bad about it.


$18 billion

Estimated U.S. spending for Valentine’s gifts, dining, and entertainments


200,000

Number of older Britons reporting they had not had a conversation with a friend or family member in a month


$6.7 billion

Added Medicare costs due to social isolation and its health harms

Valentine splurges can be hard on waist and wallet

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It doesn’t take a medical scientist to determine that many of the much-touted Valentine delights aren’t great for your health, much less your pocketbook. Here, the powers of online search engines can abet common sense and moderation to give you perspective on your Feb. 14 plans.

Experts estimate Americans will spend $136 on average on Valentine gifts and fetes, notably a fancy and caloric dinner.

Look at any of the online food or restaurant sites, and a common menu for a Valentine’s feast might round up something like this: a glass of champagne (100 calories), 3 oysters Rockefeller (100 calories), a serving of Caesar salad (327 calories), 2 slices garlic toast (400 calories), a grilled T-bone steak (750 calories), medium baked potato with butter (250 calories), chocolate soufflé (342 calories), and 2 glasses of red wine (250 calories).

That adds up to 2,519 calories for just one meal.
That means an “average” 45-year-old American male — a 5’9” man weighing 195 pounds — would splurge for 80 percent or so of his typical daily weight-maintaining calorie allotment in just one sitting. His 43-year-old “average” female date for this “romantic” dining, who would be 5’4” and weighing 166 pounds, would get 88 percent of her daily weight-maintaining calorie allotment.

Is this feasting healthy? Probably not on a regular basis, common sense should tell you. It may be OK on special occasion. It’s worth noting, though, that the average weights, as used here and put out by Uncle Sam and various health or wellness advocacy groups, already suggest what’s apparent: Americans struggle in mighty fashion with their waistlines, without over-the-top eating for Valentine’s.

So, maybe light eating and activity or experience with the beloved would be a better choice?

By the way, if the holiday gifting includes chocolates, it may be worth reconsidering. Contrary to widespread belief — something of a myth that has been foisted on the public by candy makers — chocolate, especially the dark kinds, isn’t a “miracle” food with various oversized health benefits. Neither is red wine.

And as for the purported aphrodisiacal attributes of oysters or other “special” foods for Valentine’s Day, well, that, again, may be more in diners’ minds and not based in science or evidence. Do use care, too, in eating oysters raw.

Americans’ sex lives: Full of contradictions

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Curious Valentines may wish to know: Lots of factors affect the sex lives of Americans, including economics, demographics, and the sweep of digitalization.

All of these have produced contradictory views and practices.

Data seem to show that teen-agers are having less sex (at least sexual intercourse) and fewer babies outside of wedlock.

Some experts argue that the generation whose members are between 15 and 25 years old — the first to have and to use electronic devices so commonly and frequently — have been damaged by smartphones and e-tablets. E-devices have made them cyber-connected but isolated in reality, and lonely for and backward in human relationships, including through dating and sex.

But slightly older young people seem to be more active, accepting of casual sex, and adoptive of e-devices and apps for hookups. These fast and commitment-lacking encounters, especially when they become an obsessive and singular way of relating to others, can leave young adults alienated and lonely.

Adults, overall, are less accepting of extra-marital sex, but they’re reporting they’ve had more sexual partners over their lifetimes than before.

To get a download on the “enormous variability in the sexual repertoires” of grown-up Americans, it may be worth taking a look at the seven volumes of a recent medical journal on sex — or this summary of a seven-year-old major survey of Americans’ sexual views and practices, funded by condom-makers and involving almost 6,000 respondents ages 14 to 94.

There’s one more finding that can’t be ignored about Americans’ single living and sexuality, and the country’s demographic destiny: The nation’s female fertility rate has hit record lows. But, at the same time, as the New York Times reported:

“86 percent of women ages 40 to 44 — near the end of their reproductive years — are mothers, up from 80 percent in 2006, reversing decades of declines, according to a new analysis of census data by Pew Research Center. … The increase has been especially steep among groups of women who hadn’t been having as many babies: those with advanced degrees, and those who never marry. Today, 55 percent of never-married women ages 40 to 44 have at least one child, up from 31 percent two decades ago.”

But the experts warn that the share of women who have children “could drop again if current trends continue.”  And, “if young women continue to decide not to have children, or if they struggle to do so after waiting too long, it could depress the economy and fray the safety net. There would be fewer workers to support retirees, and fewer family members to care for older people.”

HERE’S TO A HEALTHY 2018!

Sincerely,

Patrick Malone
Patrick Malone & Associates