Social Engagement

                                      Want a longer life? Connect.

No man (or woman, for that matter) is an island:  Experts find emotional isolation can create illness.

“We’ve all heard stories about people withering away after the death of a spouse. In their book Successful  Aging, physicians John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn review the health impact of being “socially connected.”  Several thing about this connection seems to be important, and apply to all people.

First, isolation – a lack of social ties -is a powerful risk factor for poor health.

Second, emotional and physical social support seems not only  to have a positive effect on health, but also  to buffer some health related effects of aging.

Finally, no specific type of support seems to work for everyone. And trying to give unneeded or unwanted support can cause more harm than good, because it reduces people’s independence and self-esteem.

Loving support is an essential ingredient in good health, and is important  for all of us.  The need for such interactions is spotlighted by studies  of children who have grown up in complete isolation from human beings ( for instance, through natural disasters). In addition to robbing these children of language skills, such isolation seems to permanently   disable their social development. As much as we would like to think Mowgli and Tarzan turn out just  fine without human contact, case studies argue otherwise. We are made not to live alone, but to interact regularly with others.

And then there is faith. Herbert Benson, MD., a professor at Harvard Medical school, has identified a “faith factor” in physical and emotional healing. In his book Beyond the Relaxation Response, he described faith as a  method of natural healing that can help many health problems. Studies in the past decades show positive relationships between strong personal convictions and problems including anxiety, alcohol abuse, depression and even high blood pressure. This link between the mind and the body seems strong.

My experience confirms the powers and limits of support. As a member of the Texas State Board of Aging, I have seen how access to social supportr can be life-saving for some but meaningless for others. In my medical practice, it seems that patients with strong family ties cope better with illness.

I’ve seen this effect in my own family. My Mother diagnosed with uterine cancer in November 1995, resolved that she would finish our family Genealogy before dying. Though she’d been compiling data for years, once diagnosed with cancer she fixated on completing the story. For the next four months, in spite of failing health, she spent hours a day at the computer detailing family historic events. She was determined to complete the task as an obligation to our family. She finished on Friday of April 1996  and died a few days later. I’m convinced her sense of connection to the rest of us is what kept her going.

We were not made to live solitary lives. Unfortunately too many of us think of ourselves first. The irony is that by emphasizing our own needs instead of caring for others, we may hurt ourselves in the long run.”

Research has found:

>Marrried people live longer – 8-10 years for men, 3-4 years for women. Divorced men have the biggest death rates.

> Parents matter. 91% of men without a warm childhood relationship with their mothers developed serious disease in midlife. Ditto for 82% without a warm relationship with Dad.

>Groups and God help. People who didn’t participate in organized social groups and didn’t draw comfort and strength from religion were seven times more likely to die within six months of surgery.

>Just talking lowers blood pressure. Older women who didn’t talk to others about their problems had higher blood pressure than women who did talk.

>Lonely is risky. People without strong connections to family, friends or groups were four to six times more apt to die in a six year study, regardless of race, wealth, health, activity or use of health services.

>Love prevents pain. Men who said their wives didn’t show them love were 20 times more likely to develop chest pains that men with demonstrative wives,

SOURCE: Health Smart, by  Tedd Mitchell. MD  USA WEEKEND. Sept 8-10, 2000.