(Photo/JTA-Jeffrey Greenberg-Getty Images)
(Photo/JTA-Jeffrey Greenberg-Getty Images)

How curing loneliness can increase longevity and health

Zara Jaffe, president of the Senior Friendship Club of Peninsula Temple Beth El (which meets at the Peninsula JCC), does not mince words: “Loneliness is lethal.” Zara should know. She is 95 years old, and boasts that two of the 20 to 25 members of her group are centenarians. She is proud that her friendship club fights loneliness head-on.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, former U.S. surgeon general in the Obama administration, discusses the impact of loneliness on mental and physical health in his book “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.” Those who battle loneliness are affected mentally and physically, resulting in increased risk of depression, anxiety, addiction, self-harm, weakened immune system, diabetes, dementia, heart disease, sleep disturbance and premature death. He explains that the reduction of lifespan due to loneliness is similar to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

Loneliness is not about being alone. It’s an internal feeling of isolation, the sense that if you disappeared tomorrow, no one would notice. In 2018, Cigna surveyed over 20,000 adults and found that 46 percent of respondents felt lonely or left out. Contrary to what we might predict about loneliness affecting mainly an older population, it was young adults in Generation Z (ages 18 to 23) who were the loneliest, followed by millennials (ages 24 to 39). After the pandemic hit, a survey by the company SocialPro revealed that 31 percent of Americans feel lonelier because of the coronavirus situation.

Being around people does not mean one cannot feel lonely. As a freshman in college I lived in a 1,000-person dormitory, played violin in my college symphony and went to classes with hundreds of others. I dared not admit to myself that I was lonely, probably because of the stigma associated with it. The following year I joined a Jewish fraternity, and I closely observed others to learn how to be more social. As a result, my feeling of loneliness decreased.

Dr. Carla Perissinotto, a geriatrician at UCSF, remarks that even before the pandemic, loneliness has been a serious public health problem. In her research, those who are more likely to be lonely include women, those of lower socioeconomic status, and minority populations. In contrast to the Cigna poll, she has found that there is a greater risk of loneliness with aging due to a combination of life transitions, such as retirement or losing a spouse, and having hearing and visual impairments.

If this pandemic teaches us anything it is that, in addition to our physical health, social health matters, too. However, once this pandemic ends (and I am optimistic it will), we may not immediately bounce back from our isolation. New York Times journalist Kate Murphy recently wrote about this, asserting that deprivation has sent our brains into survival mode and that we have become hypervigilant and oversensitive: “People start to withdraw, rationalizing they are too tired, didn’t like the person much to begin with, or there’s something they’d rather watch on Netflix.” She warns, “As we all gradually re-emerge from our confinement and widen our social circles, don’t expect anyone or anything to be the same.”

So what can we do to improve our social health? Dr. Murthy advises “service” as a powerful antidote to loneliness. Call a friend, do small acts of kindness or volunteer. How often do you hear volunteers state, “I get more out of this than I give”?

Post-pandemic you might pursue connections and service through your synagogue, your local Jewish community center, Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, or Jewish Family and Children’s Services, or by volunteering with your favorite symphony, art museum, library, or community theater. We should do the things that we find most meaningful. As a result, we will become less isolated and more resilient against loneliness.

At the end of my phone call with Zara Jaffe, she demonstrated what she preached. She invited me to join her Senior Friendship Club. This is what the club is about — creating friendships and community, celebrating birthdays and holidays, and simply being together. Whether in person or on Zoom, the Friendship Club has been meeting weekly for 40 years, and there is no excuse — even a pandemic — to stop them now. Loneliness is too big a threat.

Dr. Jerry Saliman

Jerry Saliman, MD, retired from Kaiser South San Francisco after a 30-year career and is now a volunteer internist at Samaritan House Medical Clinic in San Mateo.