Why Social Interaction is Critical for Both Physical and Mental Health

A new meta-study of social isolation has come out. It looks at data from 148 different studies with over 300,000 participants. The conclusion is that social isolation can seriously impact your ability to survive. In fact, social isolation can be compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day for how seriously it seems to negatively impact your health and morbidity.

While this is not really a simple nor straightforward matter, there are studies that indicate isolation is stressful and takes a psychological toll on people. Many people need sounding boards to work out their problems. This is not just an emotional issue, it is a practical one. Humans working together are more able to solve difficult problems.

When you have a health crisis or a personal problem, a strong social group can help make sure you get the care you need. People with cancer who have a strong social network do better. There are many people to make sure small tasks get done, that the person gets driven by someone else to their appointments and that there is someone to talk with to distract them from their misery.

As people get older and their memory and physical abilities begin to fail them, friends and family often play a crucial role in making sure their lives continue to work. In fact, some people die not long after being removed from their social network.

Of course, these are observational studies. So, for example, although depression and social isolation are strongly correlated, it is a chicken and egg problem in that we don’t know which comes first. Does depression cause social isolation? Or does social isolation cause depression?

In some cases, regardless of which actually came first, this can become a downward spiral. Isolation can go hand in hand with deteriorating physical and mental health such that you don’t know how to reach out in order to stop it. It can seem like no one would like you anyway, or like it just takes too much energy to try to do anything. This can create a positive feedback loop where isolation and poor mental and emotional health just breeds more of the same until you can seem to find no way out.

Additionally, it is also well known that bad social connections can be bad for your well being. Consider the fact that when someone is murdered, police look first to their closest connections for possible suspects. Also, consider the standard advice to people with substance abuse problems that they should “change your people, your places and your things.” So, if you wish to live a long and healthy life, choose your friends wisely and try to make whatever social connections you have as positive as possible.

Creating a healthy social network is not a simple matter, and the reasons why one may be lacking a vibrant social network can be complex. But the evidence is clear that social isolation itself strongly correlates to poorer physical and mental health, as well as shorter lifespans.

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Staying Connected is a Key to Longer Life

 Living a long, meaningful life is a goal that many people aspire to. There have been countless studies done to try to isolate the factors that lead to a longer life, but one of the common threads among seniors who have lived well beyond the average life expectancy is that they have pursued a connected and meaningful life even in their later years.

There is much more to staying active and healthy than simply eating right and getting exercise. We need emotional and mental stimulation too. Living in isolation is never a recipe for success when it comes to maintaining a positive outlook on life and staying energized in general. Seniors who stay in constant contact with family members and friends are more likely to remain physically active as well. This is because they have something to look forward to beyond the simple routine of waking up, eating and going to bed again. The role that mental and emotional stimulation plays in keeping you alert and active through your senior years is too strong to be overlooked.

One of the ways that some seniors above the average life expectancy have remained healthy is through fulfilling marriages. The benefits of marriage cannot be understated because it provides a level of companionship that cannot often be fulfilled through friendship alone. In general, studies show that remaining in a healthy marriage through senior years had a stronger positive effect on men than women. Many senior women who were either divorced or widowed were still able to find support through community groups or family to have a meaningful life.

In addition to making the effort to stay social, seniors who maintain friendships with other active people are also more likely to remain healthy. This is partly because it reinforces a healthy lifestyle and helps you stay active beyond your typical routine. This also contributes to exploring other healthy and engaging activities.

Be Social in Retirement To Extend Your Life

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Staying socially active during retirement could add years to your life, according to a new study.

The more groups a person is a part of right after they retire, the less risk of early death they face. Australian researchers found a person’s chance of dying within the six years of retiring was just 2 percent for people who participated in two groups before retirement and who stayed active in those groups. Their risk of death rose to 5 percent if they left one group, and if they left both, it increased to 12 percent.

The sense of community and belonging one achieves from social group connections provides a healthy and meaningful life. Social planning may actually be as important as medical and financial planning when it comes to retirement.

In other words, join a group or two if you do not already belong to one. If you already belong to a group, think about making the most of those social connections and explore other groups you can join. Remember that remaining active in these groups is as important as remaining physically active.

This report was published online in the BMJ Open journal.

This study did not prove cause-and-effect, only association.

It’s possible that people who are prone to mental or physical illness were less social as a result of retirement. Still the study underlines the importance of meaningful human interaction, the effects of which appear comparable to physical activity.

Social activity is certainly no substitute for physical activity though; you should do both.

The study compared data of 424 retirees over six years with people who were still working.

Participants completed questionnaires about social groups s/he belonged to, quality of life, and their physical health.

Researchers also found an association between membership in social groups and an improved quality of life.