It is recognized that feelings of loneliness can have a negative effect on not only our mental health, but also our physical health.

Research has shown that loneliness can increase the levels of stress hormones and inflammation in our body, which can lead to health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, depression and dementia.  

In the past, it was believed that loneliness was mostly a problem for older people. However, it is now apparent that loneliness can affect younger people, even in their 20s and 30s. According to some estimates, from 20 percent to 43 percent of Americans report feeling lonely or socially isolated. In younger people, some have suggested that as a result of more screen time and social media use, there are reduced face-to-face social interactions which can lead to feelings of social isolation.

Interestingly, a person can be socially isolated and not feel lonely. There are some individuals who prefer a hermitic lifestyle. Conversely, people can feel lonely even when they are married or surrounded by many social contacts. If the relationships they have are not fulfilling, then feelings of loneliness can set in. 

Some health experts suggest that loneliness may be a more significant health factor than obesity, smoking, nutrition or exercise. To address this issue, in Great Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May recently appointed a minister of loneliness to help the public deal with what she calls the “sad reality of modern life.”

What can be done? Clearly there are no easy answers to this major societal health problem. For some people who live alone, having a pet can inject sparks of meaning and happiness into their lives. Making an effort to interact with other people can reduce one’s perception of feeling lonely. There are many venues for making this happen.  

In most cities, there are community centers that offer classes and programs which lend themselves to having social interactions with other people. For some people, going to synagogue can provide a similar kind of experience. One of the challenges is that people who are feeling socially isolated do often suffer from some degree of depression. When one feels this way, there is a reluctance to want to be with other people because it can feel uncomfortable. If one finds oneself in this situation, then it is sometimes necessary to force oneself to get out of one’s comfort zone, and to make an effort to interact with other people, no matter how uncomfortable that can feel. Creating new social connections can make all the difference in trying to overcome our perceptions of feeling lonely and socially isolated.

There is a new concept that has arisen called a virtual village that attempts to address some of the difficult issues related to social isolation. In Cleveland, there is an organization called Village in the Heights that services parts of Beachwood, University Heights, Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights. This village network is a group of volunteers that helps service the needs of people who are socially isolated.  This village model is familiar to anyone who grew up in a neighborhood where residents knew one another. In the new model, neighborhood volunteers get connected with older village members who need help with anything from a ride to the doctor or to the grocery store, minor home repairs, mowing the lawn or shoveling snow. To learn more about Village in the Heights, see story on Page 50 or call 216-512-1844.

Dr. Mark Roth writes about internal medicine for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is an internal medicine physician with University Hospitals.  

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