Human Contact: Combatting Loneliness

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Humans are “hardwired” to crave and rely on human contact. Unlike turtles, for example, that are on their own from the moment they hatch out of a buried egg, from day one people depend on other people for survival.

Brain experts explain the origin of this “wiring”: early human beings lived in small, interdependent groups. To survive and thrive, individuals needed to be finely attuned to their fellow tribesmen, so the part of our brain that controls communication is very large and developed. Just as humans have a built-in desire for food, water and sleep, we also have a deep need to connect with other people.

Deprived of community and engagement with others, humans experience a condition that is damaging and distressing: Loneliness. Studies show that loneliness is increasing in the U.S. among all age groups, but for decades it has been a persistent issue for older adults. It’s not simply that loneliness makes one feel sad or bored, it can be a debilitating, distressing condition. Consider that it’s the power of loneliness that makes solitary confinement a tool of control in prisons. And most people can identify with the scene in the movie Cast Away when Tom Hanks, marooned on a deserted island, creates a “companion” by drawing a face on a volleyball that has drifted ashore.

Experts on aging have long suspected that socialization improves physical and emotional well-being, increases mental alertness and encourages a more active lifestyle. New research studies confirm these benefits and more, pinpointing the mechanisms behind the protective properties of human interaction that lessen the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, promote heart health, improve symptoms of depression and minimize the effects of stress.

For many years, research focused on the “practical” view of socialization. As they grow older, people with more developed social connections can get a ride to the doctor, find someone to lend a hand with physical care, go out to dinner with companions, walk around the park with a social group. And this is indeed an important part of the picture. But we now know that this isn’t the whole story of why social engagement is so important.

A UCLA study demonstrated that loneliness decreases the efficiency of the human immune system. Study author Dr. Steven Cole says, “The biological impact of social isolation reaches down into some of our most basic internal processes—the activity of our genes.” Several other studies also confirm that people with strong social connections exhibit stronger immunity against disease.

University of Chicago researchers showed that loneliness is linked to high blood pressure. Stress seems to be a key element of this connection. Author John Cacioppo points out that lonely individuals are less likely to approach stressful situations with “active coping and attempting to problem solve,” and this leads to a hypertension-promoting passive reaction. For humans, discussing one’s problems with someone else is an instant stress-buster.

What about brain health? An American Academy of Neurology study examining stress and dementia confirmed that people who are socially active may be less likely to develop cognitive impairment. And Harvard School of Public Health researchers showed that an active social life slows memory loss. In another University of Chicago study, MRI scans confirmed the negative impact of loneliness on brain health.

As a person ages, they often become less able to leave their home, for a variety of reasons. Some are no longer able to drive, some may have limited mobility, and still others may simply be worried about falling when they are walking in unfamiliar places. The home care professionals at Assisting Hands serving Cincinnati, OH not only provide in-home companionship, they are always happy to take someone to bridge club, book club, the movies, art museum, or even out to play a round of golf. Make sure your loved one is adding life to their years with the social interaction they need.


Source:  Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge, © IlluminAge