Despite the use of Zoom and FaceTime during the coronavirus pandemic, many people feel cut off from loved ones and are not getting the support they need. Even prior to the pandemic, upwards of 40% of our population (and 43% of seniors) reported feeling lonely or isolated, double what it was in the 1980s. This occurred due to changes in family structure, with many more single-person households and fewer traditional nuclear families. However, few predicted that social isolation could take such a major toll on health.
What we now know is that social isolation is one of the strongest predictors of chronic disease. It’s as dangerous to be lonely in our lives as it is to smoke 15 cigarettes per day, and two times more dangerous as it is to be obese. In fact, based on a large study that followed over 300,000 people for 7.5 years, those most solitary have a 50% higher chance of dying early than those who are not. More specifically, being isolated dramatically increases our chances of developing heart disease, stroke, cancer, and dementia. For those already dealing with cognitive impairment, the impact of isolation can be devastating.
Beyond the stigma of loneliness, being isolated or lacking a support system has important evolutionary implications for our health and well-being. As a “tribal” species, our primitive bodies and minds require human connection just as much as regular food and water. From the perspective of our earliest ancestors, it was more dangerous to our survival to be left alone and vulnerable than it was to miss a meal.
We’re all trying to do our best to find connections. Yet in a world faced with the harsh realities of COVID, many people have become increasingly cut off from others. Today, on National Make a Friend Day and National Shut In Visitation Day, let’s think about those loved ones who have been particularly secluded as a result of the pandemic, and commit to reaching out to them on a more regular basis.
Dr. Kachko is a member of the Sharp Again Naturally Medical and Dental Advisory Board, and President of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians
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