When studying wellness, it is easy to focus on the physical aspects of health: exercise, smoking, diet or alcohol consumption. But there is a nonphysical part of health that may be even more important.
This is the strength of the human connections in your life. “Social isolation” is the term used to describe the absence of this human contact, and some studies suggest social isolation has more effect on your health even than smoking cigarettes.
However you describe it, social isolation seems to be increasing. One study showed the percent of Americans who felt they “had no one to talk to about important matters” went from 10 percent in 1985 to 25 percent in 2004.
There are many factors behind this trend. As a culture, we move around a lot; our grown children no longer are expected to live in the same city (or even the same house) as their parents. Fewer of us are getting married, or are married later, and more of us are divorced or living single. The rise of social media has increased superficial contact but seems to have reduced meaningful relationships. We need to work longer and longer hours just to keep our heads above water financially.
Studies suggest people who are socially isolated have more health problems and do not live as long as those who are more connected.
Of course, it is also true that people with chronic illness and pain are more likely to be isolated, especially if their ability to get around is reduced. This is especially true of seniors, who tend to have more health and mobility problems.
Reversing social isolation takes effort. It can be difficult to get yourself off the couch and out into the world, making friends and expanding contacts. One of the first steps is to turn off the TV or computer. They can hypnotize you for hours at a time — it is possible to lose an entire day sitting in front of a screen.
There are resources to help as well. The group Mental Health America has a website that offers suggestions, such as joining a book club (most libraries host one), a group that organizes hiking or other activities, or volunteering. The Maine Senior College offers classes throughout the state that are meant to be fun and interesting (without homework or tests), for a small fee, for people over 50. The Eastern Area Agency on Aging has a lot of local activities, such as tai chi classes.
I still need to get a word in about the other parts of wellness: diet and exercise. I have seen patients start to get out of the house and make more human contact only after their health improved from these other lifestyle changes. A poor diet can contribute quite a bit to depression and anxiety, and for a few patients it is the primary cause. I have seen patients for whom eliminating wheat and gluten, sugar, soda and other low-quality foods from the diet resolves their mental health problems. Exercise — even just going for a daily walk — also helps clear the mind and sometimes eases chronic pain.
The three parts of wellness — nutrition, physical activity and human connection — all can work together to help you get stronger and healthier, with a certain amount of effort. Unfortunately, they also can work together to contribute to a decline in health. Poor diet leads to achy joints, which leads to less activity, which leads to social isolation, which leads to stress-eating junk food.
There are steps you can take to keep yourself out of this downward spiral, and help is available if you find yourself stuck in it.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.