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Lions Roar : July 2017
to the researchers. The idea that relationships are good for us is as old as the hills, but there wasn’t proof that relationships are a good predictor for health, such as whether we get diabetes or heart disease in middle age. So at first, the researchers thought they were just seeing some spurious correlation that didn’t mean much. But it kept coming up, and then it started coming up in other peoples’ research, too. Eventually, the Harvard Study of Adult Development identi- fied three key points about relationships and their benefit. Loneliness Is Fatal It’s not just that social connections are good for us. It’s that loneliness is fatal. People who are more socially connected are happier, healthier, and live longer than people who are less well- connected. Lonely people tend to experience a decline in their health earlier in midlife, their brain functioning degenerates sooner, and they live shorter lives. Today, one in five Americans reports feeling lonely. This is an unprecedented epidemic of social isolation, one that has been decades in the making. When television worked its way into practically every home, social capital began to decline. Fewer people connected to their communities, joined clubs, went to church, or volunteered. “They simply stayed home and had pas- sive experiences,” says Waldinger. Fast-forward to 2017 and our lives are chockablock with screens. This, notes Waldinger, has further decreased social capital. “We don’t talk to each other,” he says, “we don’t go out. So many people are feeling disconnected. Online connections can lead to real world connections, but they can also lead to a lack of real connection. You can have a thousand Facebook friends but still feel like there’s nobody you can call if you are sick in the middle of the night.” If you’re going through lonely times, Waldinger suggests you go and serve others who are also lonely. “What if you visited nursing homes? What if you made home visits to people who are shut-ins? What if you tutored people who can’t read? There are so many ways that you could start connecting with people who need connection.” It’s the Quality of Your Relationships that Counts The second key point the study identi- fied is that the quality of relationships is important. While warm relationships are pro- tective, high conflict marriages without much affection are toxic for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. In fact, how satisfied someone is in their relationships at age fifty is a better predictor of what their health will be at eighty than their cholesterol levels. As Waldinger explains, “Good close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of get- ting old. Our most happily-partnered men and women reported, in their eighties, that on the days when they had more physical pain their mood stayed just as happy.” On the other hand, people in unhappy relationships found that their physical pain was magnified by their emotional pain. Good Relationships Are Good for Your Brain The third key point is that strong relationships don’t just pro- tect our bodies; they protect our brains. People in their eighties experience earlier memory decline when they do not feel they have someone in their life they can count on in times of need. For octogenarians who do have such a person, their memories stay sharper longer. In the field of psychology, feeling that you have one or more people you can depend on when the going gets tough is called being “securely attached.” Keep in mind that being securely attached does not mean that your relationship is always smooth sailing. Some of the octogenarian couples Waldinger has stud- ied could bicker with each other endlessly. But that hasn’t taken a toll on their memories, as long as they feel securely attached to each other. • Are less healthy and begin to decline earlier • Have shorter lifespans • See an earlier decline in brain and memory function • Are not as happy as those in secure relationships PEOPLE WHO ARE LONELY PHOTOBYARVITALYAA/SHUTTERSTOCK LION’S ROAR | JULY 2017 38