More than cigarettes, alcohol and obesity, loneliness is the single largest risk factor in disease and premature death, said Lissa Rankin – physician, public speaker, and author of Mind Over Medicine – in a Ted Talks presentation last month:
Rankin said she’s often met with “dead silence” when she tells people the number one factor affecting their health is loneliness.
“This was a really uncomfortable answer for a lot of people,” she said. “They wanted me to say diet or exercise or yoga or meditation – something they felt they could do and be proactive about. They felt helpless in the face of their loneliness.”
But the numbers don’t lie. While air pollution increases your mortality by 6 percent, obesity by 23 percent, and alcohol abuse by 37 percent, loneliness increases your risk of death by a whopping 45 percent.
Loneliness is as dangerous for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, Rankin says.
In one study conducted in Alameda County, California, people with the fewest social ties were three times more likely to die over a nine-year period.
People who go through their cancer journey alone are four times more likely to die than those with ten or more friends, according to a study by University of California, San Francisco.
In a Harvard study of 700 men over 75 years, the men who fared best were those who “leaned in to relationships with family, friends and community.”
Rankin says lonely people have significantly higher rates of:
High blood pressure
For Rankin, a study of Italian immigrants in Roseto, Pennsylvania, in 1961, highlights the problem. The people in the village of Roseto had half the rate of heart attacks of the national average and a general death rate 30-35 percent lower than national average. There were zero cases of suicide, alcoholism or drug addiction. None of the community members were on welfare and there was very little crime.
Researchers thought maybe it was their diet, but 41 percent of their diet came from fat, they were obese, got very little exercise and smoked. After sorting through potential factors, they concluded the reason for their longevity was they were never lonely. They lived like a close-knit tribe with multi-generational homes.
But by the 1970s they began to modernize. They moved to the suburbs and separated. By the late 70’s high blood pressure tripled and the number of heart attacks in Roseto matched the national average.
In every “blue zone” on earth – places with an unusually high number of people who live past 100 – places like Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California and Ikaria, Greece – people live like the people of Roseto – in community, in tribe. “They know they belong, and this creates a physical protection on the health of the body,” Rankin said.
“We are tribal beings, we are supposed to be together,” she continued. “We come from love and when we die we go back to love. The whole point of being human is we’re here to love each other, to be together. Our nervous systems are wired that way.”
But when we feel socially isolated, the nervous system goes into fight or flight mode, Rankin says. The body fills with cortisol and epinephrine, which put us at risk of heart disease and every other kind of illness. Our bodies’ healing mechanisms only work when our nervous systems are relaxed.
“Think about the single mom whose by herself trying to raise three kids and get to her job, and the kids are sick, and she doesn’t have any help… And what about her social life and what about her self care? Her nervous system is in stress response, all the time.”
Our bodies are only built to handle being in stress response occasionally, like when we’re getting chased by a tiger, Rankin says. But Americans are in stress response more than 50 times per day, and lonely people are in a near-constant state of stress.
Considering 1 in 5 Americans – or 60 million people – identifies as “lonely,” this is a massive public health epidemic, Rankin said. “When was the last time your doctor prescribed healing your loneliness?”
What to do about it
Rankin said the solution to loneliness is not recruiting as many people into our social circles as possible. It’s not about quantity of relationships, it’s about quality, and it starts with having a healthy relationship with yourself.
The story of our separation – of being separate from the love around us – is a primal wound, she says. It starts with a process she calls “othering – which is when I make you other. I’m separate from the terrorists – we’re not part of the same family. This creates a deep existential loneliness.”
The process of reunion starts with befriending yourself, she says. “As long as you’re at war with yourself – with those inner voices that are telling you you don’t belong, that you’re unlovable, that you’re not enough, that you don’t deserve to be part of a community – you’re going to have a hard time magnetizing people toward you that are right here to love you.”
We’re all so afraid of abandonment, rejection, judgement and criticism, because of our childhood traumas, Rankin says. These traumas make us perceive ourselves as separate and forget we belong to each other.
We need to stop shaming ourselves, stop trying to be perfect, own our “stuff,” get out of our victimhood, stop blaming, and then we can stop seeing ourselves as separate, she says.
Rankin also advises engaging in a spiritual practice – “when we meditate, pray and spend time alone listening, we start to get insight and epiphanies. We start seeing the patterns we keep recreating.”
Most importantly we need to be vulnerable and not hide our true selves, or in Rankin’s words, not be afraid to show our big ugly tails. We need to give people permission to break our hearts and our trust, and when we meet enough people who don’t, we’ll develop resilience for when people do.
“Receive love, take down your armor,” she concludes. “We are dehydrated fish swimming in a massive lake. There is love all around. It’s right here.”
“Find your soul tribe – this is medicine people.”