Studies Show that Connection to Friends and Family Might Keep You Healthy
You know that being with people you like, involved in activities you enjoy, feels good. What you might not know is getting healthy doses of social interaction is not only fun. It can also improve your well-being.
Yes, loneliness can make us sick. It might even be killing us. Studies of elderly people and social isolation have concluded that those without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely. The New York Times recently reported a study published in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine that found isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29% and stroke by 32%.
Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found socially isolated individuals had a 30% higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and this effect was largest in middle age. In June 2017, the National Institutes of Health presented a review aimed at bringing out what is known about these pathways through which social isolation affects human health.
Torrance Memorial primary care physician Gary Tsai, MD, confirms and adds, “The 2010 census showed that up to 25% of Americans older than 65 now live alone, and half of those over 85 do. The reasons range from divorce, disability and widowhood to simply children growing up and moving away.” Studies have also shown that people in poorer health—especially those with mood disorders like anxiety and depression—are more likely to feel lonely.
The research seems to indicate there’s a definite domino effect. People who have strong social support are more active and less likely to engage in risky health behaviors such as excessive consumption of alcohol, smoking or poor eating habits. Not only that, but social support has also been shown to be a significant stress buffer, and we know stress puts an extra load on the cardiovascular and endocrine systems. And while it’s still being tested, there is also a theory that perceived social isolation (PSI) may decrease cerebral flow and in turn may negatively affect cognitive function.
“Part of my approach to all of my patients is to get a background of their living situation,” says Dr. Tsai. “Do they live alone? Do they have children who live nearby? What kind of community do they function in? It’s a complex set of circumstances, and studies have shown that being socially isolated can lead to heart disease, overeating and depression just for starters. It affects your mental health most of all.”
Vivian Lee, LCSW, is a Torrance Memorial home health social worker who provides home visits to patients who have been discharged from the medical center. “The concern is what is going on at home. How can we promote and maintain what has been done in the hospital, and how can we help the patient continue to heal? Does the patient have what they need to help us prevent a return to the hospital? So many older patients live by themselves, but they might need a caregiver. We look at that and match them up with community resources such as meals, [systems such as] Life Alert, transportation, senior centers and adult day care centers.”
Transportation, Lee adds, is crucial. “When a person stops driving, they lose independence. It begins when loved ones start to express concern about them, and when it is becoming dangerous. A lack of transportation in turn can create that social isolation.”
Lee tells people, in order to maintain independence and not go into an assisted care or retirement home, they’re going to need a little help. “If not a full-time caregiver, at least someone who can come in, help cook or clean, provide transportation and that crucial human contact.”
“Meals on Wheels is great—not only for the food but also for the daily check-in by the volunteers. The Torrance Senior Dial-a-Taxi program is amazing, and we can assist with transportation arrangements, sometimes with our own van on a limited availability basis and for select services. We usually have the same van driver, Salvador, who knows all the riders’ names, which is all part of social interaction,” Lee says. “And for some who need a bit of structure, they go to the adult day care centers and participate in the activities. It’s good for their socialization and also gives a break to their caregivers at home.”
Lee also encourages her clients to check out the classes at Torrance Memorial’s Malaga Cove, especially the mindfulness and meditation classes. “It’s a good way to work on their emotional well-being and also connect with others who might be experiencing the same feelings they are.”
The Bereavement Group at Torrance Memorial can help those who have lost a significant other “join people who are in the same journey of grieving,” says Lee. The groups have recently gone from once a week to four times a week and are free. Sometimes Lee and her colleagues encounter someone who obviously needs assistance and would benefit from services but refuses. “We meet with families and friends and educate them, because often if a patient won’t listen to us, they will listen to a loved one who is worried—even if it’s simply to please them.”
There are professional agencies that provide full- or part-time support, of course. Beach Cities Health District (bchd.org) offers classes and programs for all older adults and also provides case management services to homebound seniors, which include conversation companions, errand assistance and in-home exercise programs.
And there’s a national movement called The Village, which offers an army of volunteers to provide a wide array of services—from referrals for light housekeeping and shopping to showering and home repairs to just plain chitchat. There are chapters in almost every community.
“The South Bay Village in Torrance and the Palos Verdes Peninsula Village both are wonderful because they provide contact, transportation and connection to so many services and gatherings. They do a wonderful job,” Lee adds. Most Village programs are priced on a sliding scale.
“I focus on people empowering themselves and looking for ways to socialize. Volunteering, or in some way helping others, is a perfect way to decrease social isolation and thereby increase the happiness factor. Doing for others promotes meaningfulness and satisfaction in one’s life,” Lee concludes.
Dr. Gary Tsai believes it’s something we should all plan for. “AARP is a good resource for financial and healthy lifestyle planning. But they also suggest we should look forward and make plans for new ways to socialize and stay active. It’s really that old adage: ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it.’ People are social animals, and there’s so much research showing if you don’t have that social network in place, you are at greater risk for cognitive decline.”
So go ahead: Go dancing, go to church or maybe just have lunch at the YMCA. You’ll feel better for it.
To reach the Palos Verdes Peninsula Village, visit peninsulavillage.net or call 310-991-3324. Find the South Bay Village at sbvill.org or call 424-271-2304. You can reach Torrance Dial-a-Taxi at transit.torranceca.gov. Contact Torrance Memorial Home Health Care at 310-325-9110. Gary Tsai, MD is a member of Torrance Memorial Physician Network and accepts Torrance Memorial IPA patients. He can be reached at 310-257-7260.