Where does loneliness fit in our quest for wellness?
By: Dr. Karla Vital
I recently read a study that surprised me. It found that being lonely was just as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. As a physician and owner of a Wellness Center, I often counsel patients about changing their unhealthy habits. However, seldom have I focused a visit on feelings of loneliness. A researcher, Dr. Holdt-Lundstand, and her colleagues looked at all the published studies they could find about persons who felt lonely and socially isolated. They found that being socially isolated was even more harmful than being obese or physically inactive. To phrase it another way, being lonely was downright dangerous for your health. Initially, 1 out of 3 people reported feeling lonely. However, when they looked again several years later, the people with the most social connections lowered their risk of dying by half. So, in addition to advising patients to lose weight and exercise, Doctors like myself should also focus on the importance of social support systems.
What tests can we use to grade loneliness?
The Researchers at UCLA created a 20 questions survey, and then graded the answers based on participants feelings of loneliness and isolation. The UCLA Loneliness Scale was later shortened to the following three questions in 2004: 1) How often do you feel that you lack companionship? 2) How often do you feel left out? 3) How often do you feel isolated from others? These items are scored to rank individuals from least lonely to most lonely. They found that loneliness and depression often co-exist but are indeed separate entities. Therefore, not everyone who is lonely is depressed. However, perhaps a cure for loneliness may also help those who struggle with depression. Surprisingly, increasing age is not the only risk factor for being lonely. A new study in England from the Office of National Statistics found that individuals between 16-24 years of age were the most likely to report feeling lonely. They identified three groups at the highest risk for loneliness: younger renters, unmarried middle-aged persons with long-term health conditions, and widowed older homeowners with long-term health conditions. Thus, good health and a sense of belonging helped to combat feelings of loneliness.
What can we do to combat feelings of loneliness?
Fighting loneliness will take a team outside the Doctors Office. It will take a neighborhood village, and a sense of community to bring all age groups together.
- Start by reaching outside your comfort zone. Even teenagers and young adults are reporting their highest feelings of loneliness, despite being more socially connected online than ever. Thus, try to connect with others in person.
- Try volunteering with a charity group that you respect, attending a networking event, joining an interest group at your local library, or even a fitness group at your local gym. Especially if it allows an opportunity to meet new people.
- Become involved in a church ministry, neighborhood association, or even a school organization. This will allow you the chance to meet someone with like-minded interests.
- Maintain your health by staying physically active on most days, and keeping your scheduled health appointments. Speak with your Doctor about both your physical and emotional health concerns, to unlock all your available resources.
Remember, mental health is just as important as your physical health. Check on it often, as you travel along your road to wellness. Dr. Karla Vital is a Board-Certified Nephrologist and Bariatric Medicine Physician who is accepting new patients at Vital Health and Wellness Center in Houston, Texas. Visit us today or call to schedule an appointment. Stay connected on Twitter @drkarlavital, on Facebook @vitalhealthandwellness, and schedule a telemedicine appointment at https://www.rowedocs.com/dr-karla-vital/.