Op-Ed

Loneliness kills, and South Africa is not immune

By Garth Japhet 24 April 2018

While South Africa has a strong culture of family and social connectedness, it’s become increasingly evident that we are not immune to an epidemic of loneliness. Rapid urbanisation, crime and a history of social dislocation have served to isolate more and more people than ever before.

I have been involved in the promotion of public health for the last 25 years through the creation and development of the social awareness soapie, Soul City, and as a medical doctor I’ve pretty much seen it all when it comes to human afflictions. But I have never been as surprised as I was by a discussion I recently had with the Dean of Public Health at Columbia University in New York.

She said the global health threat that worries her most is a rising epidemic of loneliness.

Startling research over the last 10 years has shown that loneliness actually kills. In fact, the effects have such a surprising impact on the human body that, if you are overweight and are generally “unhealthy” but have good relationships, you might actually outlive a lonely health nut.

A study from the Brigham Young University in the United States puts the heightened risk of dying from loneliness in the same category as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being an alcoholic or abusing other substances and failing to exercise enough. It also surpasses health risks associated with obesity.

In fact, studies show that loneliness increases the risk of early death by 45% and the chance of developing dementia in later life by 64%.

On the other hand, people who have strong ties to family and friends lower the risk of dying over any given period of time by as much as 50%, compared to those with fewer social connections.

The majority of this research was conducted in developed countries such as the United States, where a loneliness study estimated that 42.6 million adults over the age of 45 are suffering from chronic loneliness and that more than a quarter of the population lives alone.

One would have thought that this was an epidemic among older generations, but the evidence suggests that more and more young people are lonely, too. Through social media and the internet they are more “connected” than humans have been at any other time in history, but in reality – according to these studies – are more “disconnected” than ever.

While South Africa has a strong culture of family and social connectedness, it’s become increasingly evident that we are not immune to this epidemic. Rapid urbanisation, crime and a history of social dislocation have served to isolate more and more people.

Whether it’s the pensioner who is afraid to leave her home, the migrant who feels like “the other” in his community, or the person who withdraws because she’s been racially stereotyped in the workplace, this problem exists, and it needs to be addressed. We need to be intentional about building and maintaining relationships, for our own and our country’s health.

So why does loneliness have such a profound impact on us? The reasons trace back to humanity’s evolutionary history, when people needed each other to stay alive. As a consequence, we have been hardwired for relationships. We are a social species, and just as a lack of food and water results in powerful mental and physical consequences, so does isolation.

Studies have shown that loneliness has multiple physical effects on us, such as depressing our immune system, making us more susceptible to cancers and other illnesses, hardening our arteries and putting us at higher risk of strokes and heart attacks, and even corroding our brains.

In his highly viewed TED talk, What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness, Robert Waldinger concludes that the strongest component of health, happiness and longevity by far relates to how connected you feel to the world around you, far outweighing money and fame.

So what’s to be done?

Social connectedness, much like other health-seeking behaviours, takes time and effort and needs to become a habit. In the same way that we plan to exercise regularly or are disciplined in our eating, we need to make a conscious effort to cultivate and maintain relationships. These include both our “lighter” relationships and acquaintances, such as with work colleagues and the people we might meet at the petrol pump or checkout counter – and the “deeper” ones like those with our friends and family.

With acquaintances, a smile, a greeting by name or even the effort of asking about the origin of a person’s name or the whereabouts of their family can brighten their day – and yours.

With our deeper relationships, it’s about carving out intentional time and being truly present in that time. This is particularly important with our elderly relatives. If you want them to live longer and happier lives, the greatest gift you can give them is your time.

The evidence suggests that, while face to face time is best, a phone call comes a close second, but a text message does not. In fact, the jury is out on social media entirely. Depending on how it is used, it’s been shown to make people even lonelier, even though it can help connect people to a family or friend network they would otherwise find difficult to remain in touch with.

The great news is that combating this epidemic is only costly in terms of time, not money. So the challenge to us all is to consciously invest in relationships, both “light” and “deep”. Reaching out to the lonely and the “other” in our communities will be beneficial to us and to those around us.

We have mobilised our society around important health issues such as smoking, HIV/Aids and, more recently, the negative health effects of sugar. Perhaps it’s time we give the combating of loneliness similar attention. DM

Garth Japhet is CEO of Heartlines, an NGO that initiates large-scale social change campaigns using feature films (most recently Beyond the River) and TV series as a catalyst for training and community mobilization to tackle society’s big issues. He co-created the pioneering multimedia edutainment platform, Soul City.

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