Tag Archives: social isolation

How loneliness kills

Flick/cc/ewixx

Flickr/cc/ewixx

Judith Shulevitz, in the May 13, 2013 New Republic has an interesting read “The Lethality of Loneliness.”

Excerpt:

“Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people….

“To the degree that loneliness has been treated as a matter of public concern in the past, it has generally been seen as a social problem—the product of an excessively conformist culture or of a breakdown in social norms. Nowadays, though, loneliness is a public health crisis. The standard U.S. questionnaire, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, asks 20 questions that run variations on the theme of closeness—“How often do you feel close to people?” and so on. As many as 30 percent of Americans don’t feel close to people at a given time….

“What He [God] wanted is for us not to be alone. Or rather, natural selection favored people who needed people. Humans are vastly more social than most other mammals, even most primates, and to develop what neuroscientists call our social brain, we had to be good at cooperating. To raise our children, with their slow-maturing cerebral cortexes, we needed help from the tribe. To stoke the fires that cooked the meat that gave us the protein that sustained our calorically greedy gray matter, we had to organize night watches. But compared with our predators, we were small and weak. They came after us with swift strides. We ran in a comparative waddle.

“So what would happen if one of us wandered off from her little band, or got kicked out of it because she’d slacked off or been caught stealing? She’d find herself alone on the savanna, a fine treat for a bunch of lions. She’d be exposed to attacks from marauders. If her nervous system went into overdrive at perceiving her isolation, well, that would have just sent her scurrying home. [John] Cacioppo thinks we’re hardwired to find life unpleasant outside the safety of trusted friends and family, just as we’re pre-programmed to find certain foods disgusting. “Why do you think you are ten thousand times more sensitive to foods that are bitter than to foods that are sweet?” Cacioppo asked me. “Because bitter’s dangerous!”

The article, well worth a read, discusses issues like that only about half of loneliness is hereditary, what areas of the brain light up when we are socially snubbed (the same portion that registers physical pain, i.e., the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex), what has been learned about the impact of the absence of loving parents on loneliness from the isolating experience of Russian orphans; and how Nobelist James Heckman is finding that many low SES children bear loneliness scars from poor parenting growing up (that is akin to the impact found by Steve Suomi and Harry Harlow on isolated rhesus macaques).

See other posts about the negative health effects and contagion of  loneliness and social isolation here.

Having few friends predicts early death as much as smoking or alcoholism

“Low social interaction as high a risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes daily or being an alcoholic, and twice the risk factor of obesity.”

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at BYU, published a recent meta-analysis with Timothy Smith and J. Bradley Layton (that culls from learning across 148 longitudinal health studies covering over 300,000 individuals). They showed that increased involvement in social networks on average reduces one’s chance of mortality over the period of any particular study by 50+%, a greater effect than either stopping smoking or eliminating one’s obesity/physical inactivity.

The study “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review” appears in the journal PLoS Medicine.  They controlled for baseline health status,  and found consistent results for friendships with family, friends, neighbors and colleagues across age, gender, initial health status, cause of death, and follow-up period.

The life-protective benefits of friendship were strongest for complex measures of social integration and lowest for simple measures of residential status (e.g., living alone versus with others) .  In studies that had greater dimensions of social involvement (whether one was in a network, the kinds of social support one got, etc.), the life-protecting benefits of friendships were higher, likely corresponding to the multiple pathways through which friendships provide benefits.

Low social interaction, according to the authors, was as high a risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.  Low social interaction was a higher risk factor than not exercising and twice as high a risk factor for early death as obesity.

Co-author Tim Smith noted: “We take relationships for granted as humans – we’re like fish that don’t notice the water….That constant interaction is not only beneficial psychologically but directly to our physical health.”

The longitudinal studies they analyzed tracked health outcomes and social interaction for a period of seven and a half years on average.

The 50% increased survival rate is quite likely an underestimate: these longitudinal studies don’t track relationship quality but only one’s inclusion in a social network, so they include negative relationships as well. Survival benefits of friendships are likely to be much higher if one could isolate only positive and healthy social relationships.

Holt-Lunstad speculated that the pathways of social relationships to improved longevity stem range from  “a calming touch to finding meaning in life.” She believes that those who are socially connected take greater responsibility for others’ and their own lives and take fewer risks.

Here is key Figure 6 from their study:

Unlike some other work, such as Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave, where shut-in elderly were especially at risk of death in Chicago’s 1995 heat wave, the findings of Holt-Lunstad are generalizable to all age groups.

Doctors prescribing social capital?

Flickr photo by carf

I wrote earlier about some insurers using social capital in making decisions of whom to insure.

That post and a story sent to me by Lew Feldstein about doctors prescribing outdoor time got me thinking about doctors and social capital.  In the same way as doctors ask questions of patients around smoking, exercise, diet, etc., why shouldn’t doctors also ask patients to fill out a short survey about social capital activities they engage in:  number of confidants, how many of their neighbors’ first names they know, how often they go to friends’ houses or entertain others in their home, etc.?

These data could be used for 3 purposes:

1) to track real changes in the patient over time:  e.g., if a patient used to report 2 confidants and now reports zero it would be a chance for the doctor to find out what had triggered this (a friend moving, serious arguments, a close friend dying, etc.) that might help identify patients at risk of being socially isolated or going through stressful times.

2) to benchmark against others of the patients’ education, race and age.  In larger practices, or if this information was aggregated anonymously by affiliated hospitals, the computer could help patients understand the degree to which they far less involved in community or other associations or less trusting than comparable others nationwide or in their area.  If one was significantly below what others were, the doctor might want to bring this to the patient’s attention:  “did you know that most others like you are far more active in their community?”  or “did you know that most others like you volunteer much more their community?”  “This is something that has clear health impacts;  would you like more information about how to get more involved?”

3) to prescribe social capital “treatments”.  We’re far more used to a doctor prescribing an antibiotic or an aspirin than recommending that a patient get actively involved in a group (on a topic he/she cares about).  And some social capital deficits are more easily treated than others — it’s hard to suddenly develop a confidant.  But doctors might note to patients that there are real health consequences of being socially isolated and being socially and civicly uninvolved: i.e., getting sick more often and recuperating more slowly.  If acquiring a confidant in the next year is not a doable goal, maybe deciding which of ones’ friends have the potential to be confidants and taking some steps to start to deepen these relationships might be doable over the next 6-12 months.   Patients might agree to certain steps they want to take and put them on a card in a sealed and addressed letter that gets sent to them in 4 months.  Nudges can also be used to help people keep promises (through ongoing social groups that hold their members accountable for their promises, checks that go to disliked groups if commitments are broken, etc.).

And as to why?  Doctors might point out that they would rather be prescribing social capital now than prescribing hypertension drugs five years down the road.

[Read related story in NY Times about prescribing outdoor time: “Head Out for a Daily Dose of Green Space” (Jane Brody, 11/30, 10]