The oldest human on Earth just died in Indonesia at the age of 146. Some are skeptical of validity of his age, because Indonesia did not record births before 1900, and has previously made mistakes. The officials, however, state that Sodimedjo’s documents are correct.
With Sodimedjo’s or Mbah Ghoto’s (aka Grandpa Ghoto’s) passing, comes a question – what did he do for his health to live such an incredibly long life? The answer is not much, by traditionally lauded health standards, anyway.
Sodimedjo smoked heavily until the day he died, and did not seem to care about a healthy lifestyle. But there is one thing he always attributed to his longevity: a loving community of people.
He told BBC in 2016, that he had “a long life because I have people that love me looking after me.”
In the age of superfoods and cleanses, an idea that community might hold a bigger key to health than diet and exercise is often overlooked.
Yet, there is enough scientific evidence out there that shows us: loneliness kills faster than fast food, while living in a happy community gives us many more years to live. Consider this: a person who lives in a community where they feel loved and accepted but who smokes heavily and drinks, can easily outlive a person who is leading a cutting-edge healthy lifestyle but is lonely. And there are many studies to prove this.
Loneliness is a Fast Route to An Earlier Death
In the last few decades, researchers have started looking deeper into the implications on physical health of a person being lonely. The results are concerning. Social isolation increases the risk of an early death by an astounding 30-60%.
It was discovered that there also no real difference between being lonely and feeling lonely, surrounded by people but not feeling accepted, feeling alone in a crowd, carries the same risks as actually being alone. Being alone but not feeling alone also carries the same risks.
The core finding from an influential study conducted by Brigham Young University is that:
“Actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality.”
“This is something that we need to take seriously for our health. This should become a public-health issue,” said study author Julianne Holt-Lunstad.
There are three major implications of loneliness:
Psychologically, loneliness leads to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, being the leading three problems. But even conditions such as dementia and schizophrenia can be inter-connected to loneliness.
Practically, social isolation is also dangerous. If a person has an accident or a heart attack and there is no one around to help, this circumstance can lead to an early death. A person who is alone is also more likely to not take care of themselves, to not engage in good hygiene, to indulge in bad habits, and to take little care of their health. Being surrounded by people, on the other hand, helps with accountability. These bad habits lead to more risks of death, while refraining from them helps one live longer.
Physiologically, loneliness is physically detrimental to the body, but this aspect of loneliness the science is only recently starting to understand. Loneliness stresses one out; it negatively affects the arteries, the immune system, and the brain. This leads to inflammation, memory problems, and an early death.
“In lonely people who see the world as a threatening place, their immune systems choose to focus on bacteria rather than viral threats. Without the antiviral protection and the body’s antibodies produced against various ills, the result means a person has less ability to fight cancers and other illnesses. Those who are socially isolated suffer from higher all-cause mortality, and higher rates of cancer, infection and heart disease,” according to LiveScience.
The studies that show these physiological risks are few but growing each year, as the researchers start to see the severity of the loneliness issue.
Studies on Physiological Impact of Loneliness
Physiological studies on loneliness are starting to show what we keep trying ignore: loneliness kills. Humans were always meant to live in communities, and it is more than for practicality or happiness, it is vital for our physical health as well.
John Cacippo, a social psychologist from the University of Chicago, found that even fruit flies die sooner when they are isolated. When it comes to humans, that isolation also leads to an earlier death and a host of health problems.
One of his studies has shown that the immune system suffers when a person is or feels lonely. A lonely person feels threatened by the outside world, they feel unprotected, and the immune system activates a defense strategy to fight off this unknown threat. Constantly fighting a threat that is not going away lowers the immune system’s ability to fight actual threats such as viruses and cancers.
Loneliness also causes the stress hormone cortisol to rise and circulate in the body. Excess cortisol leads to heart attacks, strokes, and general body imbalances leading to poor health.
Once a person feels lonely, it is harder to get out of the loneliness cycle. Lonely people are more likely to react negatively to social situations making them more alienated as a result.
Cacioppo found what may be the two best ways to combat loneliness in societies.
Ways to Treat Loneliness for a Happier Society
A 2010 meta-analysis study of loneliness intervention found two ways to treat loneliness. One is to teach people social skills that help them view the world more positively. And two is to bring people together.
A happy person is likely to live with others, have meaningful and close friendships, as well as diversity of social interactions, and have a healthy romantic relationship. Research recommends staying in touch with former colleagues, attending and hosting family gatherings, and getting together with friends on regular basis. It also discourages people from moving too far away from their already established community.
Lonely people on the other hand lack the above factors in their lives, and are also more likely to have experienced childhood trauma, loss, or harsh parenting. These circumstances often lead to separation from others, poor self-esteem, and negative emotions such as anger or guilt.
Programs such as 12-step group Emotions Anonymous can be beneficial for people to develop self-acceptance, truthfully seek who they are on a deeper level and learn how to share their true self with others.