Science tells us that genuine human connection is one of the most essential sources of well being and a necessary condition for our overall health.
Americans are experiencing epidemic levels of loneliness and social isolation (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2009).
Anywhere between 15% and 30% of Americans report being chronically lonely, with higher levels of loneliness among older adults (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010; Ong, Uchino, Wethington, 2016). Social connectedness has been steadily decreasing for decades; between 1985 and 2004, the average American’s social network shrank by 29%. The modal American in 2004 reported having zero close confidants, down from 3 in 1985 (MacPhereson, Smith-Lovins, & Brashears, 2006). In addition to declining over time, the number and closeness of social connections also decreases with age (Cornwell, Laumann, & Schum, 2008).
Loneliness and lack of social connectedness have been directly linked to increased morbidity and mortality, and the magnitude of its impact is profound.
Lack of social support has been estimated to have a greater impact on mortality than obesity, excessive drinking, and continuing to smoke with coronary heart disease (Holt-Lunstad, Robles, & Sbarra, 2017). Lack of social connectedness is also associated with increased risk for a wide range of mental and physical illnesses, including depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, obesity, and insomnia (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2009). For example, meta analyses suggest that social isolation and loneliness are associated with 30% increases in risk of stroke and heart disease (Valtorta et al., 2016), and presence of emotional support prior to the onset of illness is associated with a reduced risk of death following myocardial infarction (Berkman, Leo-Summer, & Horwitz, 1992).
While loneliness and lack of social connectedness can lead to illness, those same deficits of support can make it harder for people who are struggling with illness to heal.
Many people receiving medical treatment do not receive the emotional support they need; this may be because they were isolated to begin with, or because a loved-one’s illness can stress and deplete caregivers as well as patients. The results are declines in patient health and rising medical costs as patients take longer to heal (Kulik & Mahler, 1989; Cardoso-Moreno & Tomas-Aragones, 2016), are less likely to receive follow-up care (Thompson, Littles, Jacob, & Coker, 2006), and are more likely to be readmitted (Rodriguez- Artalejo et al, 2006).
Receiving emotional support—over and above more instrumental social support—has been linked to reduced mortality and morbidity (for review see Holt-Lundstad et al., 2015, Cacioppo, 2008; also Lyyra & Heikkinen, 2006; Uchino, Cacioppo, & Kiecolt-Glaser, 1996).
This appears to be driven both by a direct impact of receiving support on immune response (Loucks et al., 2006), as well as by a link between receiving emotional support and engaging in positive health behaviors (for review see Reblin & Uchino, 2009; also Uchino, 2006). Receiving emotional support has also been linked to patient adherence to medical treatment and to successful self-management of chronic illness (DiMatteo, 2004; Gallant, 2003; Johnson, Littles, Jacob, & Coker, 2006).
Thus, one of the most efective and afordable ways to both prevent illness and to improve medical outcomes is to enable and encourage people to access emotional support.