DR DAVE GLASS: Lifestyle Medicine: Increase your social connections

Helping people who are in a worse situation to ourselves, and experiencing their appreciation for what we do for them is a powerful antidote to poor self-worth.

End of year holiday is a time of togetherness, of family reconnections, of joy and peace, right? It may be for some people, but for too many others the festive season is a time of deep loneliness, increased depression, and a sense of meaninglessness to life. The forced isolation of the Covid pandemic was not only devastating emotionally, but also took its toll in increased death from heart disease, Alzheimer’s, alcohol intoxication, cancer, and suicide.

Social connection and a sense of belonging form one of the six pillars of lifestyle medicine.
Isolation and friendlessness are as risky to health as smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. Often the only consistent friends for the lonely are cigarettes and alcohol, TV, computer games, and junk foods, none of which benefit our health.

Loneliness increases all-cause mortality related to heart disease, strokes, diabetes, dementia, cancer and major depression. When we don’t have a reason to live, we are less likely to care for our health, visit doctors or clinics, take medications regularly, or adopt healthy lifestyle behaviours. Loneliness can affect people of any age, but seems to be worse in the elderly for a number of reasons. They are more likely to have lost friends or family due to death; retired with no work-place interactions with clients or colleagues; have diseases affecting mobility; or deaf which prevents meaningful communication.

What can we do to improve our social connections? Volunteering is one way many people deal with loneliness, such as working with welfare organisations, visiting lonely people in frail care facilities, or meals-on-wheels deliveries, and joining clubs or a church group. Helping people who are in a worse situation to ourselves, and experiencing their appreciation for what we do for them is a powerful antidote to poor self-worth. It gives us a reason to get up in the mornings.

Sit down and make a list of friends or family whom you have not contacted in a while. Phone or send a personal appreciative e-mail/WhatsApp message. Sending a generic picture or poem is not good enough. Let 2024 be a year of increasing our social connections.

Dr Dave Glass
MBChB, FCOG(SA), DipIBLM

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