By Danielle Keenan-Miller, Ph.D.
In Western culture, which places a lot of value on the role of the individual, maintaining our physical and mental health is typically seen as a solo venture. It’s presumed that our well-being is largely under our own control, and improving our health is something we should be able to tackle independently. However, a large body of evidence from different fields of psychology and medicine are highlighting the key role that our relationships play in our health.
Researchers recently reviewed the results of seventy studies conducted in the last three decades examining the association between social isolation and premature death.¹ Social isolation and loneliness were associated with a 25-30% increase in the likelihood of mortality. To put those numbers into context, the health risk associated with social isolation is similar to the degree of risk associated with lack of physical activity, limited access to health care, and substance abuse, and stronger than the risk associated with obesity.
Why does our feeling of connection and community impact our physical health? How do our relationships get under our skin? Scientists have identified a number of ways in which loneliness can impact our health, including increased risk of depression and other mental health problems², increased stress, and decreased physical ability for the body to repair the negative effects of stress.³
While all people experience periods of loneliness, it appears that chronic social isolation is a health hazard, and all of us can play a role in reducing our risk and that of other people. AARP recently launched a campaign called Connect2Affect that helps people assess their own level of isolation and find strategies to increase connections to others. Getting more engaged with others is a way to boost your own health and that of those around you, and it doesn’t take much: reach out to someone you know for coffee or a walk, call (don’t text!) an old friend you haven’t seen in a while, take a group exercise class, or volunteer at an organization that will connect you with others. If you have a religious or spiritual practice, engage with others in your faith community. Consider joining a therapy or support group where you can not only get help from others but also be a source of care and support for people in your community.
 Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 227-237.
 Cornell, E.Y., & Waite, L.J. (2009). Social disconnectedness, perceived isolation, and health among older adults. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 50, 31-48.
 Cacioppo, J.T., & Hawkley, L.C. (2003) Social isolation and health with an emphasis on underlying mechanisms. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 46, S39-S52.