The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Maintaining Healthy Social Connections Improves Well-Being

There are three core dimensions of connectedness linked to healthy relationships

Researchers at University of Chicago have found that extreme loneliness increases a person’s chances of premature death by 14%. The impact of loneliness on premature death is nearly as strong as the impact of disadvantaged socioeconomic status, which they found increases the chances of dying early by 19%. In an unexpected finding, the researchers found that loneliness has double the impact of obesity on early death.

Professor of Psychology, John Cacioppo, from University of Chicago, presented his findings in a lecture titled, "Rewarding Social Connections Promote Successful Aging” at a seminar on "The Science of Resilient Aging" February 16, 2014 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago.

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The health consequences of feeling lonely are dramatic. The researchers found that feeling isolated from others can: disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure, increase morning rises in the stress hormone cortisol, alter gene expression in immune cells, increase depression, and lower overall subjective well-being.

Cacioppo offers common sense advice for ways that older people can avoid the consequences of loneliness such as: staying in touch with former co-workers, taking part in family traditions, and sharing good times with family and friends—all of which gives older adults a chance to connect with others whom they care about and who care about them.

"Retiring to Florida to live in a warmer climate among strangers isn't necessarily a good idea if it means you are disconnected from the people who mean the most to you," said Cacioppo.

In a previous Psychology Today blog post titled, “Mobility Is Key to Maintaining Social Networks As We Age” I wrote about the often overlooked importance of staying physically fit as the X-factor behind an ability to maintain social connectivity and avoid loneliness as we age. Researchers in Finland found that if an older person loses mobility it can create a downward spiral of isolation, depression, and extreme loneliness.

Cacioppo emphasizes that population changes make understanding the role of loneliness and health more important than ever. He said, "We are experiencing a silver tsunami demographically. The baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Each day between 2011 and 2030, an average of 10,000 people will turn 65. People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality."

Conclusion: Focus on the Three Dimensions of Social Connectedness

Cacioppo and colleagues have identified three core dimensions of connectedness linked to healthy relationships that people of all ages can focus on to improve social connectivity and negate feelings of loneliness:

  1. Intimate Connectedness: Comes from having someone in your life you feel affirms who you are.
  2. Relational Connectedness: Comes from having face-to-face contacts that are mutually rewarding.
  3. Collective Connectedness: Comes from feeling that you're part of a group or collective beyond individual existence.

John Cacioppo concludes that it is not solitude or physical isolation itself, but rather the subjective sense of extreme loneliness that is most disruptive. Many people living alone are not necessary lonely.

Feelings of extreme loneliness are subjective and malleable. Anyone can reduce feelings of loneliness by staying socially engaged, consciously tapping into the three dimensions of social connectedness, and making a daily effort to nurture healthy relationships.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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