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Nearly a year ago, Hollywood was shocked when actress Brittany Murphy, just 32, died from pneumonia, which she contracted after taking over-the-counter drugs. Within five months, her doting husband, British screenwriter Simon Monjack, aged 40, was also dead from a cardiac arrest-his heart had literally broken.

This phenomenon, called ‘stress cardiomyopathy’, is extraordinarily common; an emotional upset, such as the loss of a loved one, causes heart dysfunction and failure in people without previous heart disease.

As with Monjack, the heart muscle weakens, causing it to literally break. Those left behind die of a broken heart-largely due to loneliness.

Of all the potential risk factors, our cover story this month shows that loneliness is the greatest of all. Heart expert Dr Dean Ornish has discovered that every so-called lifestyle risk factor laid at the door of cardiovascular disease by the medical community has less to do with having a heart attack than simple loneliness. All the usual risk factors-smoking, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and high-fat diet-only account for half of all heart disease.

No single environmental or dietary risk factor appears to be more important than isolation-from other people, from our own feelings and from a higher source. In that sense, heart disease-like a goodly number of other illnesses-can be viewed as a disease of being on our own.

Researchers at Brigham Young University were so intrigued by such statistics that they pooled and analyzed data from 148 studies comparing human interaction with health outcomes over an average of seven years. Their stark conclusion: relationships of any sort-good or bad-improve your odds of survival by 50 per cent.

Isolation was equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic, and twice as harmful as obesity. And the survival advantage may be an underestimation of the benefits of healthy relationships.

Social psychologists at the UK’s University of Exeter have shown that the most important predictor of health-even more than diet and exercise-is the number of groups to which you belong, particularly if you have strong relationships within them. The greater your group membership in voluntary social organizations such as religious groups or unions, the lower your risk of death from all causes.

“As a rough rule of thumb,” wrote Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam in his book Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2002), “if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half.”

This research demonstrates something fundamental about the human experience-or, indeed, the experience of all living beings. The need to move beyond the boundaries of our individual selves is more vital than any diet or exercise programme; it protects against the worst toxins and greatest adversity. This connection is the most fundamental need we have because it generates our most authentic state of being.

Despite our propensity for one-upsmanship and competition, our most basic urge always is to connect. May your year be full of joy and health for you-primarily through connection.

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