Power of Well-Being Found in Belonging

Laureen Lowe-Albrecht; Orchard Park Health Care- Centennial
Posted

The fountain of health lies in belonging to a group.  At least that’s what the research reveals. In the last sixty years there have been numerous studies that show that either loneliness or isolation or the combination of both, have a significant impact on an individual’s health, especially in the elderly.

“There is mounting evidence that loneliness significantly increases the chances of diabetes, sleep disorders, and other potentially life-threatening problems. Research has also shown a greater risk of high blood pressure among lonely people, as well as higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, weakened immune systems, and Alzheimer's disease,” states John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., director for the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago as he reported in 2010 to “AARP The Magazine.”

With health at risk, one may ask if there is an antidote for loneliness.  Dr. Dean Ornish, seems to think there is an answer and he responded to the question recently posed online at ShareCare.com.  “Whatever allows you to experience a higher force - whether through prayer, meditation, contemplating nature, and so on - can be a powerful means of transcending feelings of isolation. A direct experience of something larger than ourselves can profoundly transform our lives when we realize that we are not isolated and we are never alone.”

Because research regarding social isolation is linked to health and happiness, it continues to be studied. Many psychologists and social behavior experts point to the hierarchy of needs study performed in the 1940s by Abraham Maslow, MD, PhD.  He ranked the importance of belonging as one of the most important necessities for our survival after food, shelter and our immediate safety was taken into account.  

His study was globally put to test by psychologist Ed Diener of the University of Illinois. The findings, published in 2011, suggest that Maslow’s theory is largely correct and that fulfillment of needs correlates with happiness. It was found that social needs were important even when many of the most basic needs were unfulfilled. 

The connection between well-being and friendships suggest that after all is said and done, we need each other. The steps that can help lower risks include strengthening ties with immediate family, joining or establishing a self-help group, taking up a sport, becoming a volunteer and involving in a spiritual community.  

Every person who makes up our social network is essential to our well-being. Instinctually we have always felt this in our heart.  And today there is certainly scientific evidence to back it up.

According to a study reported by the “Journal of the American Medical Association,”researchers took 276 healthy volunteers and exposed them to a cold virus. The results?  The group reporting six or more diverse social networks was the most disease resistant.

Conversely, there are negative physical effects when social ties are cut.  Many studies confirm higher death rates for recently widowed spouses, especially men.  It’s true, as evidence suggests, that married couples have fewer health problems than their single friends.

Back in 1965, Dr. Lisa Berkman, a Harvard epidemiologist, initiated her jaw-dropping study.  Through her scrutiny of seven thousand men and women, she discovered that those who had limited social ties, meaning lack of contact with friends, marital status, church or social memberships, were up to three times more likely to die (in the nine-year follow-up period). And it was clearly proved, regardless of gender, age, lifestyle or health status. 1

But there’s more. Over two thousand people in Evans County, Georgia were studied and followed.  Those who had extended and close contacts with family and friends coupled with community group affiliations had lowered mortality rates. 2

The Tecumseh Community Health Study in southeast Michigan explained that men with stronger social ties had fewer incidences of lung and heart disease, decreased cancer and stroke incidence regardless of age, occupation or health status. 3

What do elderly men and women from East Boston, New Haven and rural Iowa have in common?  Studies indicate that those with no social ties had two to three times the mortality risk compared to those with four or greater social connections. 4

Seventeen thousand people were studied in Sweden.  It was a 6-year investigation of people between the ages of twenty-nine to seventy four. Socially isolated individuals were almost four times more likely to have an increased mortality ratio.  Of importance, factors such as age, lifestyle or health status did not change the end results. 5

Every person who makes up our social network is essential to our well-being. Many people instinctually believe this truth and today there is certainly scientific evidence to back it up.

  1. Berkman, L.F., and S.L. Syme. 1979 Social networks, host resistance, and mortality: A nine-year follow-up study of Alameda County residents. AmJ Epidemiol 109: 186-204
  2. Schoenbach, VJ., B.H. Kaplan, L. Friedman, and D.G. Kleinbaum, 1986. Social ties and mortality in Evans County, Georgia. Am J Epidemiol 123:577-91
  3. House, J.S., C. Robbins, and H.L. Metzner. 1982. The association of social relationships and activities with mortality: Prospective evidence from the Tecumseh Community Health Study. Am J Epidemiol 116:123-40.
  4. Seeman, T.L., L.F. Berkman, F. Kohout, et al. 1993. Intercommunity variations in the association between social ties and mortality in the elderly: A comparative analysis of three communities. Ann Epidemiol 3:325-35.
  5. Orth-Gomer, K., and J.V. Johnson. 1987. Social network interaction and mortality: A six-year follow-up study of a random sample of the Swedish population. J Chron Dis 40:949-57.
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