February Heart Month

February is American Heart Month. Globally, heart disease and stroke remain the number one cause of death. The American Heart Association and other organizations have spent the month reminding us to be physically active, eat a healthy diet, stop smoking, lose weight, and manage our cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure. All very sound advice.

But I’d like to talk about another risk factor that doesn’t get near enough air time: the impact of social isolation and loneliness on the heart.

Studies repeatedly show that people who feel lonely or socially isolated are at an increased risk for coronary heart disease and stroke, and have a greater risk of dying prematurely. Good friends can do more for our health than exercising or smoking cessation. That’s right. The science shows that the increased risk of heart disease from social isolation is essentially the same as for smoking, being obese or not exercising.

Since 1972, General Social Surveys have been conducted annually to gather data on how Americans think and feel about a wide range of topics. Shockingly, the survey data show that, compared to 1985, we are three times more likely to report having no friends, with almost 25% of people reporting that they have zero confidants. Wow. That literally makes my heart hurt.

Most of us have felt lonely at some point in our lives. That feeling of separation, of yearning for deeper social connections. That feeling can be short-lived or linger for months or years.  We work long hours. We bring our work home. The news is 24/7, with stories that often make us feel anxious or upset. We are constantly checking emails and text messages, which can be helpful for staying connected, but let’s face it, it also removes us from interacting with the people around us. How many times have you been with someone who was texting over dinner? Talk about feeling separated.

I don’t think social media and digital communication are bad. I love the little touch points I get from a text sent by my family or friends.  I don’t think watching television is all that harmful. Who doesn’t like watching an old Star Trek rerun or a great football game? But when not used smartly, these technologies can take away from the time and energy we could be putting into real human relationships. Is the television playing in the background because no one in the family is talking? Are we spending hours online so we don’t notice that we feel alone and isolated?

Human beings are relational; we need companionship, we need people to share with, and those we can turn to for support. This requires us to be vulnerable, to be willing to risk and trust. It means making time to cultivate and nurture our relationships with people that matter to us. In a society hardwired for independence, not interdependence, this can sometimes be hard.

Take the American Heart Association’s counsel when it comes to reducing the risk of heart disease. And add friendship, social connections, shared meals, and family bonds to the list. Put down the cell phone and be present. Turn off the television and ask your kids or partner to tell you about their day. And if you are feeling lonely, remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” 

A recent study by Brigham Young University shows that a surprising epidemic is lurking in our everyday modern lives; loneliness (defined as being socially isolated) has now been proven to be extremely dangerous to your long-term health. After looking at more than a 140 studies, researchers found that being socially isolated is linked to premature death and can be just as harmful as the effects of smoking or obesity. We now know that feeling lonely is so much more than just an unpleasant experience.

But how does loneliness–a natural human feeling we all experience sometimes–become such a serious threat to one’s health? The answer seems to be connected to another major health concern: depression., Humans may be more connected than ever through screens and social networks but we are becoming less and less physically connected. Many extended families no longer share homes; making elder care and parenting responsibilities more and more independent. We take care of many of our needs through the magic of being connected online but may be lacking in the social connection department.

There is more than a kernel of truth in the old saying “no man is an island.” We need each other, and that goes beyond the physical to the emotional self too. Another wise adage is “a problem shared is a problem halved.” Think of the relief you feel when after a long trying day, you tell a trusted loved one your troubles. They listen intently and you feel the validation and understanding of another who shares in the human experience. It’s the very essence of social healing.

So how then, do we combat the health dangers of loneliness? One surprising answer is learning to love solitude. We’re so often directed to “learn to love ourselves” when faced with a personal crisis or extended periods of alone time. But what, really, does that mean? Learning to be your own best friend and companion sounds lovely on paper but what is solitude really?

It is a state of being that is very much removed from the pain of loneliness.

Solitude may be defined as cultivating (and enjoying) your relationship with yourself. Counterintuitively, when you know yourself well, you can form stronger, more meaningful bonds with others. And when you spend time alone in a positive way, being alone with your thoughts, you can reflect on issues big and small. Give your brain and body space to be its real self and through knowing yourself, you can more easily build healthy bonds with others.

One way to explore solitude is to get in touch with nature. Leave the technology behind and let the rhythm of your steps and breath come into sync in a natural setting. Nature makes it easy, but you need not plan a trip to an exotic locale to reconnect. Time spent on your porch, or sitting in a comfortable chair by the window simply being with yourself, is as worthy as any other moment of solitude. The point is to listen to your own needs, let the noise of everyday demands (no matter how loving they may be) quiet down for a spell as you open your awareness. Cultivating solitude means also cultivating mindfulness.

You may be surprised to find peace. You may notice you have been empathetically mirroring the speeds of others and the sweetness of solitude is a chance to dance again to the rhythm of your own drum. You may find yourself finally “seeing the forest for the trees” and have a revelation of a personal need you’d set aside. You may see your relationships to others much more clearly with some space. You may remember how much you loved something, like photography, or reading, and you can choose to spend more time letting your passions be fruitful.

When the noise of life is reduced, your thoughts have a little more room for much needed quiet. Solitude can give the amazing gift of perspective, along with a much-needed dose of relaxation.

Learning to enjoy solitude can be an antidote to loneliness (especially when you are forced to be alone). Teach others to learn to love solitude and give the gift of solitude to others when they need it. It can be a great pleasure, and keeping yourself company is a skill many people truly cherish. It’s a tool you can use to reconnect and rekindle your relationships, especially the one with yourself.

Loneliness can have severe detriments to your health, but it is not the same as solitude. I often find solitude to hold many joys and comforts.

— Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

Meditation and Heart Health

meditation low dog

Practitioners of meditation have long known that training the mind can profoundly benefit the body. The American Heart Association agrees. In 2017, the AHA released its first-ever scientific guidelines on meditation, stating that regular sitting meditation practice may help reduce the risk of heart disease. They encourage learning to meditate alongside other heart-healthy lifestyle changes like diet and exercise. Whether practiced as part of a larger spiritual tradition, or simply as a relaxation technique, meditation has a powerful ability to calm down the body’s stress response. This can lead to better sleep, less anxiety, less depression, and lower blood pressure – all good for cardiovascular health. The AHA also points out some studies that suggest meditation can help people who are trying to quit smoking. Once again, this a powerful reminder of just how closely our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being are all intertwined.