Autumn marks the official start of back-to-school season, sweater season, holiday season and, unfortunately, cold and flu season. You’re already eating your G-bombs and F-bombs (that’s F for fat by the way) and washing down your wellness supplements with a cup or Echinacea tea. You also meditate and exercise because you know stress management is important to maintain a strong immune system. There’s just one more thing you need to fight against any nasty germs and bugs you might encounter this season—a friend.
With what we now know about the mind-body connection, it’s hard to believe mainstream science once rejected the premise that our psychological state could affect our physical state. Most people, including western-based doctors, now understand how a person’s state of mind can help or hinder the progression of variety of health issues, including serious diseases like cancer. New studies are taking the benefits of stress management a step farther, suggesting friendship and diverse social networks actually increases the ability to fight disease. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that strong social connections (not just romantic relationships) have been linked to such benefits as lowered risk of depression and early death, greater pain tolerance and a stronger immune system.
For years there’s been an assumption that elders who live alone have poorer health than elders who live with a friend or family member because solitude leads to bad eating and exercise habits and difficulty getting to health-care appointments. But new information is leading Dr. Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, to believe loneliness itself is bad for you. In an APA article Dr. Carstensen reports “…what we’re learning is that emotions cause physiological processes to activate that are directly bad for your health.”
For adults, a lack of friends is more than just an inconvenience when you need a ride to the doctor’s office or a movie partner. A Brigham Young University study found that the negative health impact caused by a lack of strong social connections was comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day—or double the health risk of obesity. Researchers stress that it’s not being alone that poses a risk, it’s being lonely. Feeling isolated, even if you’re surrounded by people, is what triggers the negative impact on health.
Less Hand Sanitizer, More Friends!
Nothing and no one can replace that special life-long friend you love, but one or two friends is not enough to reap the benefits experts are talking about. Strong, diverse social connections are what’s needed. Most adults, especially older adults, lose many of their connections once their children are grown or as they reach retirement age. Where does a grown-up make friends these days? Social media is nice, but it’s no replacement for live human contact. Strengthen your social connections and your immune system by volunteering, joining a travel group, taking some classes and saying yes when friends invite you for outings. The more diverse your social circles are, the more likely you will develop meaningful bonds with a variety of people. Here’s to your health!