Even as modern technology increases our access to other people, our intimate relationships are becoming scarcer. Families are smaller and relatives don’t always live in close proximity anymore. More people work from home, and busy schedules and to-do lists keep us from connecting in a meaningful way.
That same modern technology that permits us to connect easily with people from all over the world also tends to get in the way of time spent in real face-to-face relationships. Our inborn desire for intimate relationships with other human beings is, for many of us, not being met.
I recently happened across an article reporting on a University of Chicago study that says that long-term loneliness can be a risk factor for hypertension in people age fifty and older, even when depression and stress are factored out. The study also took other risk factors, like body-mass index, smoking, alcohol use, and demographic differences, into account. Researchers concluded that loneliness is a unique health-risk factor in its own right.
A 2007 article in Medical News Today links the risk of developing Alzheimer’s in old age to social isolation—feeling disconnected from a social environment and close relationships and a general feeling of abandonment. This feeling of loneliness can happen even when one has many social contacts, and can increase with age as our circle of friends and family gets smaller after retirement, death of loved ones, and loss of mobility. Researchers linked loneliness to lower levels of cognitive function as well as more rapid decline of function. People who identified themselves as lonely experienced double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s than those who described themselves as least lonely. Notably, actual physical isolation was less important than perceived isolation.
Studies indicate that a sense of isolation disrupts not only willpower and perseverance, but key cellular processes deep within the human body. The study also found that chronic loneliness belongs among risk factors such as smoking, obesity, or lack of exercise, and that feeling a sense of social connection is vital to mental well-being and physical health.
A 2008 article by USA Today suggested that the pain of loneliness is less about being alone than about feeling alone. Loneliness is a biological process and the effects of this feeling of loneliness can take a physical toll. The mind/body connection is a powerful one.
According to WebMD, loneliness can also hamper the immune system. A study of college freshmen showed that social isolation can have a stressful impact on the immune system.
Search the Web and you’ll find that such studies about the impact of isolation and loneliness on the body abound, and most point to the importance of perceived loneliness rather than specifics about actual social interaction. Most of us have had at least some experience with feeling lonely even while in a crowd. You can’t gauge loneliness by how many people with whom you surround yourself.
How many “friends” do you have on Facebook and other online networking platforms? Do these people meet your need for companionship? The social networking available online can help ease the sense of isolation, especially for people with mobility problems, but only to a point.
Getting out of the house and into social situations can help us feel like active participants in the world, but it’s still not enough. What we need, and what is increasingly lacking, is face time with people we feel comfortable with, people we trust, people with whom we can let our hair down with and be ourselves. In my book, face time means turning off the trappings of technological distractions. No texting while visiting, please.
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