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Reach out! Socializing improves health, mood, and mental acuity: interaction with others helps ward off cognitive decline and depression and promotes physical and mental wellbeing.

Chronic loneliness is not only emotionally distressing for most people, but research suggests it can also be physically and mentally harmful. Feeling isolated from others can lead to greater risk for cognitive impairment, increased incidence of physical ills, and even a shortened lifespan. Fortunately, many of these negative consequences can be reduced or overcome by finding ways to reach out socially and reconnect to others.

"It may be challenging to develop a habit of actively structuring new social and learning activities, but it becomes easier with practice, and it's well worth the effort," says Joel Pava, PhD, Director of Psychotherapy Services at MGH's Depression Clinical and Research Program.

MENTAL AND PHYSICAL HARM

Scientists have linked social isolation to health consequences such as reduced tolerance to pain, greater risk for heart attack, high blood pressure, and stroke, as well as sleep and eating disorders, depression, and dementia. Social isolation has also been linked to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and therefore may increase susceptibility to disease. Older people appear to be especially vulnerable.

According to a paper published in the February 2014 issue of Social & Personality Psychology Compass, research involving more than 2,000 people aged 50 and older revealed that compared to participants who reported enjoying more social support, those who reported feeling lonely showed signs of impairments of executive functioning, sleep, and mental and physical wellbeing. Participants who reported feelings of loneliness--even if they were surrounded by other people--were 14 percent more likely to die over the six-year study period than the average study participant, and twice as likely to die as the most socially connected participants.

"There is a significant body of research suggesting that social isolation increases risk for a variety of physical and mental health problems, and this study adds to those findings," says Dr. Pava. "Social isolation tends to become more prevalent in older populations. As we age, it can become difficult to replace the naturally occurring social networks previously available at work, at home and in the community. This may result in depression, which further inhibits our ability to reach out to others. Eventually this may create a negative feedback loop in which social connection, mood, cognitive functioning and physical health are all more likely to decline."

OVERCOMING LONELINESS

Isolated individuals miss out on the support and encouragement provided by others--which acts as an important spur to self-care--and lack the stimulation and rewards of socializing that can help preserve mental acuity, improve mood, and build self-esteem.

All types of relationships provide benefits, including intimate ties to a spouse or a close friend, relational ties, with frequent direct contacts that provide companionship, and collective ties, characterized by connection to a larger group, such as a political or social organization. Investing in any of these levels of social connection can help dispel feelings of loneliness.

"Local community programs and faith communities can be an important source of social connection for many older people," Dr. Pava points out. "They are typically quite welcoming, and often have programs which facilitate social interaction among older adults."

Other suggestions include: attending community events-, doing volunteer work for charities and other worthwhile programs; developing new interests, such as joining a choral group or learning how to play bridge; extending and accepting invitations; and making an effort to meet your neighbors.

Increasing social connection via the internet, using smart phones, tablets and computers, offers another excellent way to reduce feelings of isolation. If you feel overwhelmed by computer technology you may wish to search out one of the widely available classes offered by schools, libraries and other organizations or obtain help from a tutor or techno-savvy grandchild.

Taking steps to increase your social activities can help ease your feelings of loneliness. However, if you continue to feel sad and are avoiding contact with others, consider seeking help from a mental health professional, Dr. Pava advises.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

These suggestions may help you change your approach to socializing and form new friendships:

* Adopt a positive attitude toward yourself and others.

* Try not to pass judgment on others--be more accepting.

* Learn the art of listening in conversations.

* Share a secret or two--reveal something about yourself.

* Respect other people's boundaries.

* Don't be afraid to ask for help from others, if you need it.

* Find ways to help others.
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Publication:Mind, Mood & Memory
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
Words:717
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