When we think about our overall health we usually refer to our physical health combined with our mental health as the sum of the whole picture. If we eat our vegetables; go for a walk or hit the gym; and not blow a fuse too easily, by most standards, we’re doing just fine. But as more news is emerging about the biological impact of loneliness and social isolation, it may be time to consider social health as on equal footing.
What is Social Health?
Social Health is defined as the dimension of our well-being that concerns how we get along with other people, how others get along with us, and how we interact with social institutions and societal mores. The definition is intentionally broad as socialization is complex and varied. It incorporates things such as personality, social skills, and social norms and bears a close relationship to concepts such as well-being, adjustment, and social functioning.
As this is a topic not often discussed, social health is something most people would be quick to dismiss as a legitimate component of overall health. While good nutrition and exercise have been proven to enhance vitality, one might feel it’s a stretch to say that having good pals can extend your years. But for as crazy as it sounds, the data is now proving that being socially active is as important as that morning run.
Socializing is Vital for Wellbeing
Having a group of friends or confidants may feel like a nice-to-have but science is proving that it’s becoming a have-to-have. Being void of social vibrancy in your life can end up doing real damage to your wellbeing, down to the cellular level. And deficient social health can’t easily be separated from your overall health. The effects of social isolation can cancel out any other healthy conditioning you’re striving for.
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But as usually the case, a person who suffers from poor social health contends with diminished physical and mental health too. People who are lonely and isolated have a propensity to have poor health habits such as smoking or unhealthy eating and they are more likely to suffer from conditions like depression. Science is still studying the hypothesis of correlation versus causation but it’s becoming crystal clear that it’s all related and interconnected.
Following are four ways in which healthy socialization (or the lack thereof) impacts your real physical health. Feeling like you belong to something or someone has wide-ranging impact on your entire wellbeing. This is not just optimistic thinking. This is science.
1 - Impact on life expectancy
According to a study by Brigham Young University, actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality. That means whether you are truly alone or just feel alone, the impact on your body is the same. The increased mortality is tied to both behavior — such things as poor diet, insufficient exercise, and risky behavior — as well as the body’s bio-immune response
According to at least 33 studies, loneliness is determined to be a significant bio-psycho-social stressor. Social isolation physically impacts the body and contributes to common chronic conditions including heart disease, hypertension, stroke, lung disease, and metabolic disorders. All of which will put you in the grave sooner.
According to former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, data indicates that the reduction in life span [from loneliness] is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s greater than the impact of obesity [on lifespan].
2 - Inflammation in the body
Because loneliness is such a biological stressor, it plays a role in the inflammation response in the body by disrupting its fight-or-flight signaling. This leads to increased production of immature monocytes, causing lower antiviral responses and increased inflammation. This impairs the production of white blood cells which partly explains why lonely individuals are at greater risk for chronic illness and prolonged infection.
A study conducted at Ohio State University showed higher levels of inflammation-inducing substances in the blood of lonely people. Chronic inflammation has been linked to heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and even suicide attempts.
3 - Risk of memory loss or Alzheimer’s disease
A study from the Florida State University College of Medicine involving data from 12,000 participants collected over 10 years confirms loneliness can increase the risk of dementia by 40 percent. The data indicates the impact is impartial to gender, race, ethnicity, or education.
According to Robert S. Wilson, Ph.D. Director of Cognitive Neurosciences at Rush University, loneliness is a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease, not an early sign of the disease. He and his colleagues analyzed 823 older adults over a four year period.
What they found was the risk for developing Alzheimer's disease increased approximately 51 percent for each point on the loneliness score, so that a person with a high loneliness score (3.2) had about 2.1 times greater risk of developing Alzheimer's disease than a person with a low score (1.4).
"Humans are very social creatures. We need healthy interactions with others to maintain our health," says Wilson. "The results of our study suggest that people who are persistently lonely may be more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of age-related neuropathology."
4 - Loneliness affects our sleep and vice versa
Getting a good night’s rest is an important component of functional health. It’s restorative and helps regulate all the other systems in the body from sex drive to appetite. Those that have poor sleep patterns usually also have other health issues that eventually emerge.
According to Dr. Michael Breus, a renowned sleep specialist, there’s a body of research showing being lonely reduces sleep quality and sleep efficiency. And conversely, another study indicates poor sleep patterns lead to lower motivation and social withdrawal perpetuating the lonely downward spiral.
In a 2018 study from the University of California Berkeley that examined sleep-deprived versus well-rested individuals, it was found that the brains of those lacking sufficient sleep exhibited heightened activity in areas of the brain that deal with perceived human threats. Plus, it showed a shutdown of areas of the brain that encourage social interaction.
Interestingly, people shown videos of sleep-deprived individuals felt more alienated, suggesting that antisocial feelings are contagious. When feeling tired, not only do you not want to interact with others, they don’t want to interact with you.
Feeling Better When Together
From what’s presented here there seems to be enough evidence to prove the case.
Companionship = good
Loneliness = bad
But aside from the quantitative measurement, we can look to our own experience to intuitively know this is all true.
Regardless of your own experience with loneliness right now, think back to a time when you felt a strong connection with others. It could have been when you were in school, spending time with close colleagues, or feeling the comfort of a trusted family member.
How did you feel? Did you feel like you were connected to something bigger? Did you feel the sense of belong to a tribe…your tribe? You may not have evaluated all of this at the moment, but I can tell you that your body did.
When you are around others and you feel a sense of connection to them, your brain releases dopamine (a.k.a. the feel-good hormone) and you feel it in your body. It’s that feeling of euphoria, bliss, motivation, and concentration. Think of laughter. Like when you laugh so hard you start crying or risk peeing your pants, you feel so good because your body is getting a healthy dose of dopamine.
From your brain, you get a little euphoric high and a biological kick to incentivize you to keep up such behavior. This is especially the case when it’s combined with the other three brain chemicals that are responsible for our feelings of happiness and well being: oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. Aside from the lighthearted buzz you perceive, you also benefit from the biological effects which include improved immune functioning, stress relief, increased tolerance for pain, improved cardiovascular health, reduced anxiety, and improved mood.
Yeah, that’s some good stuff.
Recognizing the Importance of Social Health
When we look at social health both quantitatively and experientially, we should now recognize the merits for it. Insufficient socialization leads to very negative biological long-term health consequences while enriching socialization leads to positive mood enhancement and a restorative biological response.
By investing in our social health with the same attention and priority as other types of health, we give ourselves the best chance of living a life long in years and full of enjoyment.
Evaluate your health comprehensively. Give each component of health a score for how healthy you are in each. One being low, ten being high. How does your social health measure? From your evaluation identify three priorities for improving your overall health. Write them down and determine some practical action steps to tackle each one. Seek out additional information from legitimate health sources for more facts and support.
How have you found your social health impact your overall wellbeing? Please share your examples in comments below.