Why loneliness is a grave problem

03 September 2017 - 00:00 By CLAIRE KEETON

First it was smoking. Then HIV. Next, obesity and lifestyle diseases. Now loneliness is being flagged as the major new threat to people's health and longevity.
The "loneliness epidemic" in many countries could pose a greater hazard than obesity or smoking to public health.
Social isolation and loneliness significantly increase the risk of premature death, says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Utah.
Strong friends and family bonds reduce this risk, but these take time and effort and are increasingly disrupted by virtual relationships."We're finding our homes are no longer homes. They're just like dorms from work and school," says Khayelitsha therapist Andreas Banetsi Mphunga. "People put their bags down and take off their shoes, and then fathers and mothers go onto LinkedIn and Facebook and children onto Instagram and they have no connection any more."
He has been counselling a child who told him: "I'm sitting with my family but I feel like there is no one there and I'm lonely. I do not have data and they are on social media. I'm unable to connect with them."
A father and daughter are not talking to each other because of a rift over social media. "She used go to her room when she came home and the father doesn't want to provide airtime anymore. This is putting a wedge between them and it is a huge issue," he says.If you do not have enough milk and sugar for the week, you cannot invite your neighbour over for tea, says a resident of Ginsberg in the Eastern Cape, blaming poverty for the worsening isolation.
The shadow of social isolation stretches far and some groups, like bereaved spouses or new mothers, are particularly vulnerable.
Take 40-something tech exec Julia from Joburg. The first years of raising her daughter alone isolated her and she was frequently ill, which exacerbated this cycle.
"Being consumed with motherhood meant I saw almost no one else except very tenacious friends for weeks," says Julia, who had recurring low-level glandular fever.
Her daughter got sick frequently when she started preschool and Julia would pick up these infections, and had no time to keep fit. "I got sick. I got so depressed and felt very alone and my back suffered. My back and neck are my stress barometer," says Julia, who is socially active and healthy again.5 WAYS TO LIVE LONGER
1. Hang out with friends to reduce your chance of early death.
2. Walking is great for physical and mental health. Walking a dog is one of the best ways to counter the decline in activity as we get older.
3. Frequent hugs protect stressed people from getting illnesses. Volunteers were exposed to viruses and those with social support, measured in hugs, got less sick.
4. Dark chocolate: Eating (a little) dark chocolate regularly is good for your heart and mind. As chocoholics say, a balanced diet is chocolate in both hands.
5. Drink and be merry: Red wine and coffee in moderation have proven benefits for your heart and memory...

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