Health talk with Janice Norris

“Television is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.” T. S. Eliot describes much of what has happened to Americans during the past 50 years. Loneliness has become an epidemic and it is affecting the health of both young and old.

A lack of close friends and social contact generally brings the emotional discomfort or distress known as loneliness. It can make us sad and bring on a feeling of emptiness filled with a longing for contact. Feeling distanced from others can tear away at our emotional well-being.

New research suggests that loneliness and social isolation are as much a threat to your health as obesity. As Richard Lang, MD, chair of preventive medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio puts it, people need to attend to loneliness in “the same way they would their diet, exercise, or how much sleep they get.”

Research from Brigham Young University suggests that the health risk associated with loneliness or social isolation is “comparable to well-established risk factors” such as obesity, substance abuse, injury and violence, and environmental quality. “In light of mounting evidence that social isolation and loneliness are increasing in society, it seems prudent to add social isolation and loneliness to lists of public health concerns,” according to the study authors.

Loneliness can send a person down a path toward bad health, and even more intense loneliness, studies have shown. But while some have assumed the culprit was a lack of others to remind a person to take care of himself or herself, new research suggests there's a direct biological link between being lonely and ill health.

Levels of circulating stress hormones and blood pressure rise during prolonged loneliness. It undermines regulation of the circulatory system so that the heart muscle works harder and the blood vessels are subject to damage by blood flow turbulence.

Efficiency of sleep can be destroyed by feelings of loneliness, so that it is less restorative, both physically and psychologically. Lonely people wake up more at night and spend less time in bed actually sleeping than do the nonlonely.

It has been found that loneliness is tied to hardening of the arteries, inflammation in the body, and even problems with learning and memory. It appears that we are hardwired for social interaction with our fellow human beings and if we don’t have it we suffer, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

The good news is that even though loneliness can set into motion many negative impacts inside the human body, the addition of social contact can stop some of these ill effects. It appears that friendship is a lot like food; we need it to survive. Psychologists have found that human beings have a basic need for inclusion in group life and for close relationships. It easier to meet the varied challenges of life with close friendships.

Even though loneliness has negative effects on health, it is not abnormal. Everyone feels lonely sometimes, often when suffering loss of a loved one, divorce, the empty nest or other changes in circumstances. It is a normal feeling during times of being suddenly alone. Chronic loneliness, that which is never ending, is that which is a sure marker for disturbance of mind and body.

Like T.S. Elliot, I believe television and other electronic devices are responsible for much of the loneliness that has become epidemic. When adults and children spend hours watching others live on television rather than interacting with others and living themselves, loneliness results. Loneliness can cause children to take a road to school dropouts, delinquency, and other forms of antisocial behavior. Maybe more limits on television, video games, and cell phones might give them more time to seek out other kids and more interaction. I remember the days before television when children played outside, unsupervised for hours at a time and adults visited while performing everyday tasks. No one “got ready for company”.

In order to be close to others, you have to be vulnerable. It is the gift of imperfection that brings us close to others. A new acquaintance of mine recently came to my house and exclaimed as she walked in, “Oh, I am so glad to see another messy house. Now I don’t feel bad about mine.” It is those who have seen us at our worst, not just our best, who become close friends. Happiness is freedom from the need to impress, someone has said. How true!! Be yourself.

Older people often find themselves lonely because of the death of spouse and friends, children in distance places, and other life changes. Senior centers provide an outlet for making new friends and participation in healthy activities. They are present in virtually every community serve as network for people connect with one another and form friendships.

No matter what your age, if you are feeling lonely, it is important to become conscious of ways to connect with others. When it comes right down to it, we are all in this together and we need each other. Finding a way to help someone may be the best thing you can do for yourself. You have your own special talent that can bring joy into the lives of others. Surprise yourself!

(Janice Norris has a B.S. in Home Economics from Murray State University and contributes to The Sun Times each week. She can be reached at janorris35@gmail.com)