When I first got sick and a doctor told me he thought I had Lupus, one of the first things I started asking was, why? Why me? Why now? What have I done to deserve this? I’ve spent the last ten years searching for answers to those questions and as regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve found many of them in the latest science of mind body medicine where researchers are studying the way things like our thoughts and emotions, our choices and behaviours, and our life circumstances interact with our physiology to exacerbate or even cause illness.
I’m often asked if I can now pin point the one thing that led to my illness. Of course, there was no one thing. It was the perfect storm. I have a genetic predisposition to autoimmune disease. I had gut issues associated with an undiagnosed egg allergy. I wasn’t eating well. I was chronically stressed. I had taken on the emotional problems of others as if they were my own. I wasn’t sleeping well. But of all these things, there is one that stands out to me as being at the heart of my unbalanced life that led to chronic disease. I was lonely.
At the time I was starting out in journalism there was an unwritten law for young people trying to get their foot in the door. You have to do your time. If you wanted to make it in the industry you had to cut your teeth by reporting in a regional place. My first break with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) meant that I was working in North West Tasmania. Before that, I’d been living in the South Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu. I’d been living away from my family and friends for years. In the days before social media and Face Time, my connection with people who knew me well was mostly via text messages and email and although I made an effort to make new friends, socialise and take trips back home, maintaining close relationships was getting harder and harder. Even my family started forgetting my birthday. I had a deep underlying sense of isolation and loneliness.
The science on loneliness and its link to chronic disease is compelling. We now know that isolated people are at increased risk for the development of heart disease, cognitive deterioration and even the common cold. When researchers test the blood and saliva of lonely people, they find that loneliness is associated with increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and a weaker immune response.
A three-year study showed that fewer interactions with family and friends predicted an increased likelihood of developing hypertension, cancer, liver disease, diabetes and emphysema. Repeatedly, studies show that social seclusion is associated with an earlier death. When researchers recently conducted a comprehensive review of the data on isolation and loneliness, analysing the results of 70 independent studies, they concluded that loneliness is on par with other major risk factors that routinely make the list of public health concerns such as lack of exercise, obesity, addiction and mental illness.
At the same time as this evidence linking loneliness and disease is piling up, and despite the fact that we’re living in the most urbanized time in the history of mankind, the trends suggest we’re feeling more isolated than ever before. In fact, we live in an era where affluent nations have the highest rates of individuals living alone since census data collection began and those rates are projected to increase. In the US, over the last two decades there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Americans who report having no person they can confide in. Just because you live in a city, doesn’t mean you aren’t lonely. Already, for 15 – 20 percent of the population, loneliness is a chronic state. In the UK, it is predicted that loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless action is taken.
To put all this in another light, let me tell you the story of the US town called Roseto, which I featured in my documentary. In the 1960s, the Italian immigrant town had the lowest rate of heart disease in the country despite its cigar smoking, wine drinking, meatball loving culture. After extensive review of their health data, a team of researchers led by Stewart Wolf concluded that it was their strong community ties that led to their good health. As time passed and fences, opulent houses and expensive cars started appearing, the close knit community broke up. Soon, the rate of heart disease became the same as the rest of the country. Check out this animation which explains the research.
My life today is unrecognizable from what it was when I fell ill. I live in a part of Sydney where family and friends are minutes rather than an airplane trip away. My husband and I work hard on our relationship and spend hours each week talking openly and with an open mind. I make an effort to see my friends regularly, scheduling catch-ups so that they happen automatically. I practice Loving Kindness Meditation, which has been shown to help reduce stress-induced immune responses and to boost positive emotions. I even make an effort to connect with strangers and rather than looking at my phone when I’m at the grocery store check out, I ask the cashier how they’re going. A recent experience with a nurse I had never met who was doing a blood test for me resulted in a beautiful exchange of personal life experiences and both of us ending up in tears.
The take home message from all of this is that good health is not just about eating our vegetables and exercising regularly. We need to take a whole health approach, and that includes tending to our emotional wellbeing by reviewing our social connectedness. The changes I’ve made haven’t been easy and it’s been a ten-year journey so far. I’ve enlisted the help of professionals and had to do a good deal of self-reflection and make monumental life changes. As I write these words, I’m the healthiest I have ever been in my life and I have no doubt that much of that comes down to the fact that I feel loved and supported.
If you’re feeling lonely, isolated or depressed, I urge you to get some help so you can learn to reconnect with others. It’s interesting that a review of interventions to reduce loneliness showed that changing harmful thinking patterns was the most effective way of reducing loneliness. You might like to check out Beyond Blue if you don’t know where to start.