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What do you think the greatest contributor to dying from disease is?  Surprisingly, it’s not poor diet, lack of exercise, or too much drinking and smoking. Of course, these factors are very important when we’re looking at health, but there’s something else which trumps even the caricature beer-swilling, pizza-stuffing smoker who sits pontificating in the pub: that something is social isolation.

What does this mean? As a society’s rate of social inclusion increases, so people live longer. The flip side is people who are socially isolated (ie, lonely and/or rejected), and those who perceive themselves to be this way, are more likely to be ill and die younger.

For example, three randomly-picked studies concluded: loneliness is as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; people with the fewest social ties were three times more likely to die younger; and, women treated for ovarian cancer live longer if they have more social connections.

Isolation can be actual; for example, we see people with no relatives living nearby, or who are unable to get out and about to meet friends or join groups because they are disabled or poor. Isolation can also be perceived: have you ever been in a crowd and felt lonely? It’s probably more common than you think. There’s another facet too: targeted rejection, which is what people experience when a partner leaves them or they are sacked, for example.

Social isolation is a real problem and is something all health professionals need to consider when treating chronic health issues. It can manifest in depression, a greater tendency to inflammatory diseases, and a longer time to recover from any health complications. This is because poor social-environmental conditions, especially our subjective perceptions of those conditions, can switch some ‘health genes’ off. Social inclusion can help turn the right genes back on – and stop them switching off in the first place.

Social cohesion helps individuals and society; before we lose more money on ill-conceived States’ initiatives, let’s start helping people regain their sense of belonging. We are apparently a rich Island, so why this parlous state of affairs? We have some amazing local individuals and charities who help many people, but we need more. The States should lead on this: they don’t have to run everything, but need to provide an umbrella and resources.

Suffering? Visit jerseycharities.org, gov.je/Health and cab.org.je/family, and ask your Deputy to find you people who can help.

Effects of social isolation on health – Jersey Evening Post article

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