Isolation Is Killing You

Photo by Hernán Piñera.

There are a lot of perks to going it alone sometimes, but true isolation is becoming a deadly epidemic in the U.S., especially for middle-aged men. But the loneliness that often comes hand-in-hand with the trials of modern living don’t have to be a death sentence.

Social isolation and loneliness have been associated with major negative health effects in study after study, leading some researchers to consider long-term isolation to be just as bad for longevity as smoking cigarettes. There are also links to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s. And one recent study found that merely living alone can increase the risk of premature death by a whopping 6%. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy even goes as far as saying that isolation is the most common disease in the country.

Problem is, as Billy Baker explained so eloquently at the Boston Globe, we’re not very good at admitting when we’re lonely-or even realizing it. Baker spoke with Dr. Richard S. Schwartz, a Cambridge psychiatrist, to see what could be done, and it’s an easier fix than you might expect. For starters, you have to take a look at your life and admit that you’re feeling lonely. This isn’t easy, Schwartz explains, because we’re afraid it makes us sound like losers, but it’s vital. Do you maintain contact with people you consider friends? Do you carve out time to be with people you care about? Do all of your social interactions take place on social media?

Once you’ve established something is amiss, your loneliness should be a call to action. Reconnect with your old friends, and consider connecting with acquaintances. If you need new friends, make an effort to go find them. Take classes at the gym, try your hand at improv, talk to people after religious gatherings, join a sports league, or start taking your dog to the park.

Once you’ve re-established connections, come up with an activity you can do with your group of friends in person. This is especially helpful if you’re a man, since Schwartz says women tend to be better at staying in touch by other means. Meeting once every couple months for a drink isn’t enough, so choose something you can do a couple times a month with some regularity. I personally recommend gathering friends around a table for role-playing games or board games. Whatever you choose, make it part of your schedule so you can plan other things around it, and your family always knows when it is. Isolation will only kill you if you let it.

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