Staying in Touch: Loneliness and Health

Staying in touch with people helps you stay in touch with reality.

The rise of human loneliness may be one of the most serious sources of disease in the Twentieth Century. This, according to James J. Lynch, Ph.D. in his book “The Broken Heart, Medical Consequences of Loneliness.“

Whether we like it or not, we human beings are social animals, very few people thrive as hermits. For most of us, being around other people and staying connected to other people is an important source of our connection to reality. In order to do well in life and enjoy a good, high quality of life, you have to be willing to put up with people. People can be a pain in the rear end, but loneliness is worse.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine love and the healing power of intimacy has been one of the eight pillars of Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. One of the oldest books in the world is “The Art of The Bedchamber” which documents the importance of love and intimacy for health considered it as important as food for life.
In modern research we can see evidence that indeed one of the most effective ways to stay healthy throughout life is to work on your social skills and build some loving and even intimate relationships into your life.

Marasmus: Failure to Thrive Syndrome

In awful orphanages in the last century, the phenomenon of marasmus was first discovered in infants who, if shortly after birth, are not touched, cannot process nutrition properly, the babies suffered from “failure to thrive” syndrome and experienced major mental health problems and many even died from the lack of human contact.

As we get older physical touch is less important than emotional touch. As we get older people become more and more isolated in retirement, marasmus is a major source of mental health problems in older adults and why some older adults sometimes act grouchy, crazy, paranoid, or end up being a chronic complainer. It used to be that people aged in place with multi-generational families around them. Now more often than not people live out their ‘Golden Years” in retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes surrounded by strangers.

Is Retirement the Same as Banishment?

The process of retirement for most older adults is a process of gradually being cut off more and more from family and friends the people that they usually interact with. In primitive societies, this is known as shunning or banishment, and this is commonly used as a form of execution. People banished and isolated long enough from others suffer adverse health effects and will eventually die.

Families tend to move away, recreational activities change, slowly but surely older adults are cut off from their friends, from their family, from their acquaintances. The largest area in a person’s life for having contact with other people is in the workplace. When we retire people get cut off from all the friends they’ve made on the job.
In recent research on the effects of stress on genetic expression has shown that social isolation can be as big a stressor on your DNA as being chased by a predator.

Improve  Your Social Skills You’ll live Live Longer

Studies have shown that social support helps to resist disease and improve immune function. People enjoy life more and end up living longer. For example, in one study, non-smokers who live alone died quicker than smokers who were married or lived with a pet. According to Gerald Kaplan of Hebrew University, when stress is high people with poor social support are 10 times as likely to get physically or emotionally ill than people with good support. Poor social support has been linked to depression, unhappiness, high mortality, heart disease, cancer, stomach upsets, skin problems, arthritis, headaches, and implicated in many other health related problems.

Marasmus and Personality Disorders

In order to understand how the process of marasmus affects personality and behavior. All we have to do is to look to children or pets to see the phenomenon demonstrated quite graphically. Bad attention is better than no attention. When a child or a dog is ignored long enough they will begin to look around for bad behavior to engage in order to get attention. Getting smacked or getting scolded is a lot better than being ignored.

This same kind of behavior can be seen in common kinds of personality disorders among older adults. For example, the grouchy old man syndrome. Usually, with older men, most of the friends they make in their lives are made on the job. When they retire and lose that job, if they don’t have good social skills or the ability to go out and make new friends. If they are alone long enough begin to become more and more withdrawn it doesn’t take very long before they begin to act out. If they don’t get enough attention, one common manifestation is the grouchy old man syndrome. the only way this person has learned to get attention is to be in somebody’s face complaining or criticizing, and that he’s found that is a way to get attention, he will engage in that kind of behavior it’s the same thing with the chronic complainer. If older adults learn that the the only way they can get the attention from the people around them is to complain about their medical problems, expect them to complain constantly.

Even the seemingly crazy old coot, an older adult who acts bizarre and the behavior becomes more and more disassociated from reality, may simply be a symptom of marasmus. In most normal healthy adults, to be placed in a sahmadi tank or sensory deprivation tank, where no sensory input is allowed, most young healthy adults’ brains will begin to hallucinate wildly after only a half an hour of complete isolation. What does this mean for older adults who become isolated from other people for months and even years at a time? For many of them, they learn that the easiest way to get the attention of their family or the people around them is to begin acting crazy, whether this is on a conscious or subconscious level. Many of the bizarre behavior changes seen in late life may simply be a cry for attention.

To fix marasmus and the rise of loneliness  we don’t need any high tech molecular biology. What we need are more meaningful societal roles for older adults. With the older adults in your own life, if you have one who exhibits any of this kind of behavior, the solution is actually quite simple. All we need to do is to let them know that they can get our attention without engaging in this kind of negative behavior. Just like the child or the puppy who engages in bad behavior just to get attention, we need to let them know that they can get our attention with the proper kind of behavior. We need to let them know that we are willing to talk to them and be with them and let them be part of our lives and be a part of their lives. We need to give them permission to talk about things that are enjoyable and proper to be talking about, because to ignore people is to push them into more and more bizarre behavior.

Our older adults need to have plentiful opportunities in our society to become fully active participating members of the society so that they do not need to feel shunned, isolated and alone. As we ourselves get older, we need to cultivate good, strong, social ties and good, fun, meaningful activities for ourselves. This not only has implications for mental health, but also has implications for physical health. Dr. Lisa Burkman of the University of California at Berkeley found with a study of 7,300 people over 10 years that those who lived
isolated lives had three times the death rate as those with strong social supports.

Reduce Your Risk of Dying: Make a Friend

I once had a 99 year old gentleman tell me that  “If you want to live to be my age, you better learn how to love new people. Then you’ll never run out of people to love. Otherwise you outlive all the people you love.”
So that if you would like to reduce your risk of dying by up to to 1/3, before the end of this day, go out and make a friend. Good strong social networks provide a buffer against the ravages of time. People live longer, happier, healthier lives. It keeps them from becoming dependent, and we benefit from their experience, wisdom and skills. When you lose your job, your spouse, your friends, your money, your health, sometimes in life all you have left is the friends that you make.

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