Every so often, a new scientific study makes headlines just because of its simplicity. And it so happens that this month, a prominent medical journal has just published research findings indicating higher risks of dying for people rarely visited by family or friends. Yes, you read it right, a simple visit to or from a family member or friend is all it may take to reduce the risk of dying. And it isn’t many visits, visiting just once a month appeared to be enough.
But the message coming from these research findings isn’t actually new. It has long been established that those who live alone, and those experiencing loneliness in other ways, have higher risks of dying prematurely.
The term ‘social isolation’ was actually coined a while back to describe this observation and its association with mortality. This has led to various interventions meant to enhance social connections and mitigate the ill effects of isolation.
But why would a simple visit from a friend or family member have a protective effect from premature death? Various mechanisms have been proposed. For starters, socially isolated people may have more unhealthy habits. They may eat poorly, drink and smoke more, or even use recreational drugs just to keep themselves occupied. They may not move as much either. All these combined raise their risks for cardio-metabolic diseases. There has also been a suggestion that social disconnection may negatively affect the immune system, leading to poor health outcomes.
In the referenced study, the worst affected are those who live alone, especially if elderly. They seem to harbour the highest levels of benefits from social visits. Those not living alone also accrued benefits from other visiting family and friends.
The frequency of visits beyond once a month didn’t appear to elevate the level of benefits, but shouldn’t intuitively be harmful in any way.
So, what should you take from all this? The main message is avoiding social isolation as much as possible. Maintain active connections with family and friends, if only for the wider health benefits.
Be on the lookout for close family members and friends who may be facing increasing isolation, more so if in the older age groups. Plan frequent visits to those living far from you, and spend quality time with them.
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If you find yourself more and more isolated from loved ones, prompt them to make efforts to visit you every so often. Otherwise, they will find you already dead the next time they show up after a prolonged spell.