How To Improve Your Health With Social Connections : Newsweek –Published Feb 09, 2024 at 7:00 AM EST

Medicine and technology may fail us at times, but human connection grounded in love and compassion always heals.”Those words from the 21st and current U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy resonate with many of us in the medical community who increasingly encounter individuals suffering from the damaging effects of loneliness. Almost half of adults reported experiencing feelings of loneliness, and that was before COVID-19 exacerbated our sense of disconnection.

But it’s the end of the quote—”always heals”—that is most prescient to me, as a lifestyle medicine expert, coach, and educator. There are many complex factors driving loneliness, but it is clear that positive social connections do in fact “heal,” and in ways far beyond simply reducing feelings of estrangement. These connections can work wonders on our physical and mental health, even prolong our lifespans.

The surgeon general’s 2023 advisory on the epidemic of loneliness compared the health consequences to those of smoking cigarettes. A lack of positive social connection puts individuals at 29 percent higher risk of heart disease, 32 percent higher risk of stroke, and 50 percent increased risk of dementia. Lack of good social connections increase the risk of premature death by an astounding 60 percent, the advisory stated. Social support can even help people maintain a healthy body mass and control blood sugars.

Simply put, we long to belong. From our births, when the so-called bonding hormone oxytocin creates our first social bond with a parent, we depend on connections for survival. But if the evidence shows that social connections are a human need vital to our health, why are they so rarely incorporated into health care? How often does your social support system come up during a rushed 15-minute office visit so common in primary care today? I suspect not often, if ever.

A rapidly growing number of clinicians certified to practice lifestyle medicine recognize that it should come up often. Lifestyle medicine is the application of evidence-based, whole-person, prescriptive lifestyle changes focused on six pillars: optimal nutrition, physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, positive social connections, and avoidance of risky substances. While every individual’s treatment should be personalized to the unique aspects of their life, these pillars are interconnected, with social connections receiving attention just as nutrition does.

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