While it may not surprise you that Americans spend twice as much on health care as do other developed countries, what may surprise (and disturb) you is how little we get for our money. According to a recent article in the AARP Bulletin, in a 2011 study of 17 industrialized countries, American men ranked last in life expectancy (75.6 years) and American women ranked next to last (80.7 years). More disturbingly, the gap between America and other countries has been widening for the past three decades!
Concerned about these statistics, the National Institute of Health ordered a broad study of U.S. deaths from a variety of sources, including drugs, alcohol, obesity, diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, and homicide. According this study, researchers found what they called “a pervasive pattern of shorter lives and poor health” crossing all socioeconomic lines.
Clearly, it’s not because Americans aren’t spending enough money on health care that they rank so low in comparison to other countries. Other conditions that the AARP article mentions that contribute to the quality of our overall health include factors that are well within our control. Although Americans tend to drink and smoke less than their peers in other developed countries, we eat more calories per person, use seat belts less frequently, are more prone to gun violence, and have higher rates of drug abuse. Because of the high cost of medical care and health insurance, many people do not have access to good quality care. Because we are so reliant on cars as our primary source of transportation, we tend to walk less, get less exercise, and have a greater incidence of obesity.
Yet despite the overwhelming conclusions of this study, there is one very significant factor regarding quality of health that it did not include. That factor has to do with the breakdown of communities as our society becomes more fragmented and dependent upon technical devices for communication and less inclined to experience direct, personal interactions with others. While many of us fail to connect the dots between a diminishment of personal involvement with others and the overall quality of health, a number highly regarded health experts have done so and have a lot to say about it. In his best-selling book Healthy at 100, John Robbins states that the most important indicator of longevity and good health is the quality of our personal relationships. He states that chronic loneliness ranks as one of the most lethal risk factors in determining premature mortality. He also makes reference to cultures that are known for their longevity and the degree to which they value and invest their time and energy in the cultivation of personal relationships. Robbins cites the Abkhasia who live in the Caucausus Mountains of Southern Russia as the longest-lived people in the world. In this culture, wealth is not measured in terms of money, but rather by the number and quality of relationships that a person maintains in their home, extended family, and community.
In referring to the influence of relationships on our overall quality of health, Dean Ornish, another highly regarded physician and researcher states: “I am not aware of any other factor, not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs and not surgery that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness and premature death from all causes.”
The presence of supportive, nourishing relationships in our lives provides an antidote to the stress that we experience when we feel overwhelmed, isolated, unsupported, and disconnected from loved ones. Such stress releases hormones such as cortisol and the catecholomines epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are also called adrenaline and noradrenaline. Social support neutralizes the effect of stress by lowering the production of these stress hormones. Eve Shehilo, M.D. speaks of what she refers to as a love cocktail. “Love sets off a series of physiological events in the body. Peptides and hormones are released, including endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, vasopressin and nitric oxide. These lower anxiety, prompt relaxation, and create a positive physiology.
Developing psycho-social supports is just as important as eating well, driving safely, exercising, and avoiding smoking. Time spent with our spouse, children, grandchildren, and closest friends, gives “live messages” to our cells.
It’s time for us to acknowledge the significance that healthy relationships have on our health and make this information more known to the general public. Investing in our relationships will bring about a greater return on our health and overall well-being than practically anything else that we can do. By all means, do break those unhealthy habits, and cultivate some healthy ones. But don’t forget to put friends, family and community closer to the top of your priority list. Cultivating quality relationships does take time and energy, but there’s nothing that we can devote our precious life energies to that will bring us a greater (ROI). Return on Investment. And that’s the truth!