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Empathy, understanding, and a sense of belonging and closeness can bring about a host of positive emotions impacting our physical and emotional health. The Covid-19 pandemic, by contrast, was a stark reminder of how isolation can trigger a worsening of mental health for so many people, some of whom considered themselves resilient.

With an impact across other pillars of Lifestyle Medicine – nutrition, physical activity, sleep, use of harmful substances, and stress reduction, the quality of our social connections occupies a uniquely important place. How often do we, as doctors, ask our patients about how connected they feel to those around them? Perhaps not as often as we should.

Evidence suggests that having positive social connections reduces the risk of chronic diseases such as coronary artery disease, strokes, diabetes, and mental health disorders, including dementia. It improves immunity against infectious diseases. We know that it is an independent protective factor in prolonging a healthy lifespan – a study with 300,000 people found that survival in chronic disease increased by 50% in those with strong social connections.

On the other hand, those who experience social isolation or loneliness are more prone to chronic disease and may face early death. They face similar risks to those who smoke 15 cigarettes a day or consume excessive alcohol. Their risk of mortality exceeds that of physical inactivity or obesity!

A prolonged period with insufficient social connection triggers an inflammatory response in the body, manifesting in increased body fat, raised blood pressure and a spike in stress hormones. Unhappy individuals are more likely to indulge in less healthy behaviours regarding their diet, exercise, alcohol and smoking, resulting in worsening inflammation and chronic disease.

As Lifestyle Medicine specialists with a coaching approach, social connection is stressed, and support is offered. Clinical data from more than 40,000 patients revealed that patients receiving psychosocial support in addition to usual treatment were 20% more likely to survive in general and 29% more likely to survive longer than patients who received standard medical treatment. This underscores the benefits of an integrated Lifestyle Medicine approach for patients.

Suggestions to improve connectedness include:

  • Joining social groups or activities you enjoy; meeting people with a common interest, e.g. a book club, hiking group, volunteering
  • If someone has a serious illness, the company of a group is invaluable in providing support and advice
  • Reaching out to people or seeing a counsellor if you are shy
  • Seeking help from a couples counsellor, as a troubled relationship can do a lot of harm to your health
  • Forgiveness, gratitude, and mindfulness can also help.

Dr Charu Narayanan, International Medical Clinic – Katong trained in nutritional Medicine and studied Lifestyle Medicine to obtain the International Board Certification in Lifestyle Medicine conferred by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine in 2020. She is uniquely positioned as a doctor to personalise healthcare and work with patients to reverse/reduce disease risk rather than just treat it.