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Staying connected

MagazineApril 2009 (Vol. 20 Issue 1)Staying connected

Once thought to be entirely separate, the mind and body have now been discovered to be intimately connected-so much so that, in fact, they even share the same 'messenger chemicals'

Once thought to be entirely separate, the mind and body have now been discovered to be intimately connected-so much so that, in fact, they even share the same 'messenger chemicals'.

Mind-body research is now one of the most exciting new areas in modern medicine, opening up a whole new understanding of how to recover from illness as well as how to stay healthy.

Among the most important findings is that connectedness to other peopleis crucial for maintaining health. Studies show that people who have social networks and a support system are healthier and live longer than those who are lonely and socially isolated.

Isolation from others appears to have serious adverse consequences on health-and not just the obviously mentally related psychosomatic condi-tions, but also objectively diagnosable physical illnesses such as cancer and heart attack.

In one study in San Francisco and another in Eastern Finland, of the nearly 20,000 people observed for up to nine years, those who were lonely and lacking in relationships were two to three times more likely to die from heart disease or all other causes than those who felt connected to others. These results occurred regardless of risk factors such as high cholesterolor high blood pressure, smoking or a family history (Am J Epidemiol, 1979; 109: 186-204; Am J Epidemiol, 1988; 128: 370-80).

A recent US study found that older people who are lonely are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as those who are not (Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2007; 64: 234-40). "It may be that loneliness may affect systems in the brain dealing with cognition and memory, making lonely people more vulnerable to the effects of age-related decline in neural pathways," suggested the researchers.

In other words, loneliness has a physical impact.

Conversely, having social networks and social support can protect people against disease-from heart and lung disease to diabetes and cancer (J Aging Health, 2006; 18: 359-84).

In one study-a controlled trial of nearly 400 elderly patients with severe depression-those who were assigned a 'depression coach', or depression care manager, were far less likely to die over a five-year period. Inexplicably, the benefit seemed to be almost entirely attributable to fewer cancer deaths-from 20.6 deaths to just 8.9 deathsper 1000 person-years (Ann Intern Med, 2007; 146: 689-98). Having someone to talk to, it appears, may prove to be a lifesaver.

Connectedness can even help us fight off infectious disease. Among276 healthy volunteers, aged 18 to 55, those who had more diverse social networks had a greater resistance to the common cold. Those who had the fewest social roles (such as being married, a parent, a friend or a colleague) were four times more likely to develop a cold than those with the widest variety of social ties (JAMA, 1997; 277: 1940-4).

Potential mechanisms

The structure of our social networks, the support we receive from others,the quality and quantity of our social interactions, and our feelings of isolation and loneliness are all known predictors of health and wellbeing (Am Psychol, 2004; 59: 676-84). However, why they are so remains unclear.

One possibility is that social isolation and the feelings that come with it-loneliness, alienation, low self-esteem-can lead to chronic stress, which has known physical effects on the body. Not only can stress promote coping responses-such as smoking, alcohol abuse, illicit drug use or sleep loss-that are harmful to health, it can also trigger the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary- adrenal cortical axis. Prolonged or repeated activation of these systems can place people at risk of a range of physical and psychiatric disorders (Am Psychol, 2004; 59: 676-84).

Social connectedness, on the other hand, promotes positive psychological states-for example, a sense of identity, purpose and self-worth-that induce health-promoting responses. Indeed, studies show that people involved in positive social interactions have lower levels of stress hormones, fewer cardiovascular responses and enhanced immune function (Am J Health Promot, 2000; 14: 362-70).

Joanna Evans, with additional reporting by Tony Edwards

Getting connected

-Work on not being disconnected from your own feelings, from other people and from a higher being. Making friends, volunteering, expressing your feelings, praying or developing your own spirituality can help to establish a sense of connectedness-and may just save your life.

-Avoid having negative relationships and social interactions. Studies show that relationships characterized by conflict and stress can be just as deleterious to health as social isolation (Am J Health Promot, 2000; 14: 362-70).

-Learn a relaxation technique such as yoga or Transcendental Meditation, which will help you to get in touch with your own spirituality.

-Get a pet. Pet ownership has been linked with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and better physical and psychological wellbeing (BMJ, 2005; 331: 1252-4). Pet-owning older individuals had lower blood pressure than those without pets. Interaction with pets as well as the pleasure derived from stroking were thought to be responsible (J Behav Med, 1988; 11: 509-17).

-Keeping connected includes cultivating a sense of forgiveness-ofyour friends, enemies, family, parents. Most important of all is to forgiveand love yourself.


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