WebMD Health News is reporting a study funded by the National Institute on Aging showing that elderly women who maintain close friendships and strong family ties are less likely to develop dementia than women who are less sociable.
This study just adds to the scores that confirm that strong social networks can protect against dementia and many other diseases and disorders.
In the case of cognitive impairment, a number of previous studies have showed that adults who live alone or who have no social ties have a much higher risk than those who have more social connections.
The researchers discovered that women with large social networks were 26% less likely to develop dementia during the study period, although the study didn’t establish a direct link.
In my book, 10 Essentials of Highly Healthy People, I point out that one of the 10 essentials is to “avoid loneliness like the plague” or “The Essential of Community.”
Love, social support, intimacy, security, safety, satisfaction, connectedness, and community—these terms all relate to a common theme in the medical literature. It just makes sense. When we feel loved, nurtured, appreciated, valued, cared for, and supported, we are much more likely to be happier and healthier.
People who avoid loneliness have a much lower risk of getting sick and, if they do become ill, they have a much greater chance of surviving. If you want to be a highly healthy person, then the simple fact is that your relationships matter. And they matter a lot.
God understood the problems of being alone. In the first book of the Bible we are told, “God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Several verses later, “God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’”
The Hebrew word translated as “alone” carries an overtone of separation and even alienation, a sense of being incomplete—even a sense that the alone (or lonely) person is unable to be complete.
In fact, the Hebrew word is pronounced “bad.” It means “separation” or “being apart” from someone or something essential. Many Hebrews, both ancient and modern, consider aloneness as the opposite of authentic living. To them, living requires positive social relationships in family and in community. True life is not individual, it’s social, it’s living with others.
This ancient record of wisdom is now being proven by modern research.
The kind of separateness referred to in the biblical text is a form of disease, and we now know from medical studies that loneliness can cause psychiatric disorders and mental breakdowns, even illness and premature death.
The Hebrew mindset was that human beings live, truly live, only insofar as they are related within their environment to others with whom they share life and love—with whom they co-serve God, family, and community.
Medical research has, over the last few decades, expanded our knowledge of the importance of positive relationships and socialization on our mental, physical, and spiritual health.
The verdict seems clear: People who do not regularly enjoy meaningful personal relationships with God or others, or who are in relationships devoid of love or caring, are highly likely to have lower levels of health. Lonely people are at greater risk for heart attack, heart failure, ulcers, stroke, infectious diseases, mental illness, diabetes, many types of cancer, lung disease, autoimmune disorders, and other life-threatening illnesses.
Many social science researchers are now saying that, apart from our genetics, the most powerful across-the-board factor in predicting premature death and disease is lack of social support.
Researchers have looked at a variety of relationship measures, such as a sense of being accepted and loved by others and a sense that the support or help of others is available.
Almost all of the medical studies that have examined these sorts of social support conclude that it affects health positively. People who believe that no one really cares for them, or who don’t feel close to anyone, or who feel they have no one in whom to confide or to help them out of a bind—these folks are three to five times as likely to experience premature death or disease.
The good news: Reducing loneliness by working at developing and enhancing friendships will help to improve your overall health.
This doesn’t mean you need a large group of friends. A small group will do—even one or two very close friends with whom you share interests and affection can do the trick.
For Christians, this modern research helps us understand our instruction in God’s word: “Do not forsake the gathering of yourselves together, as is the habit of some …”