Last week I described how researchers use a computerized cyberball game to look at what happens in the brain when people feel isolated and rejected.  It was powerful to see that after just a couple of minutes of being excluded from a ball toss game, the pain area in the brain was active, genes that protect us against infection were switched off, and genes relating to inflammation were switched on. All after just a couple of minutes of rejection by people unknown to the participant.

While this short term effect is significant, other studies show that long term social isolation has such impact as to predict mortality.

More specifically researchers found in a study of 1604 people [1] that loneliness increases the odds of early death by 45% (relative risk).  

By comparison:

  • Increased air pollution increases our odds by early death by 5%
  • Obesity increases our odds of early death by 20%
  • Excessive drinking increases our odds of early death by 30%

Another study [2], which combined the results of 148 studies (totalling 308,849 participants), found that people who have strong ties to family and friends have as much as 50% less risk of dying over any given period of time than those with fewer social connections.

So you can see that community really is medicine. The data are strong on the positive benefits of connectedness and the negative effects of social isolation.  How can we use these findings?

The first step for a lonely person is to recognise the feeling of loneliness and understand the impact it can have on the body.  Then looking for ways to be part of the community is important. Possibilities exist through volunteering or being part of a support group. Its not easy, but as we have seen, finding someone to confide in can have profound effects.

If you have good social connections, maybe you can look out for others in your community who are possibly more isolated and reach out to them.  Its difficult for them to make the first step – so being proactive can help.

I have seen the impact of connection many times but especially from my work with Ceres Community Project where a lot of our clients lived alone and didn’t have any support.  Their weekly food delivery from someone who had time to chat, and their weekly phone call from their liaison gave them ‘community’ with no expectations of them. The volunteers entered the clients’ lives at a difficult period, to accept them, and not judge them. And they listened. Repeatedly, clients would tell us how powerful those connections were.

Our ‘call to action’ this week is to reach out to someone who may be feeling isolated.  Lets show that community is medicine in our local communities. 

Perissinotto, C., Stijacic Cenzer, I., & Covinsky, K. (2012). Loneliness in Older Persons Archives of Internal Medicine, 172 (14) DOI: 10.1001/archinternmed.2012.1993

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T., & Layton, J. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review PLoS Medicine, 7 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316

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