Julia’s never clicked with her co-workers. Once, she hid out in the bathroom to avoid a “team-building” exercise. Shooting shoulder pain makes her want to hide under the covers. She’s so exhausted at night, she plops in front of the TV to relax.

Gary’s the opposite. He loves being the center of attention — a joke-cracking wiseguy.

Yet he feels some friends and family outright avoid him.

His wife claims he’s become a political hothead and spends too much time ranting on Facebook. Gary asks: who can blame a guy for caring? Yet even joking with co-workers, he can’t shake the feeling of being alone.

Julia and Gary — both patients of mine — live on two ends of loneliness island.

Loneliness is both dependent on the number of friends you have and the quality of your connections to the people around you — and lacking either can severely impact a person’s health.

Chronic loneliness is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, heavy alcohol use or obesity, as reported by a 2010 study in PLOS Medicine.

It increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and premature death. Social isolation can kill you. But, how?

In 1978, a rabbit revealed the answer.

That year, researchers ran a simple experiment with rabbits to show the link between high cholesterol and heart health. The results surprised everyone.

While the genetically similar rabbits all ate the same high-fat diet, one group appeared protected from a heart attack or stroke.

Dr. Robert Nerem, the lead scientist on the study, recalled wondering, What explained the difference?

It remained a mystery until the team noticed that one of the lab researchers wasn’t just feeding the rabbits.

She was petting and talking to them. Dr. Nerem explained, “She couldn’t help it. It’s just how she was.”

They repeated the experiment and got the same shocking results. The difference was kindness and company.

Four decades later, ample scientific studies show that kindness and connection are critical to health and cellular aging.

Love and TLC alter gene expression through microscopic epigenetic changes. Telomeres — the DNA “caps” that help determine how long we live — extend or shorten in response to stress and our connections to others, as first reported in the 2004 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Positive relationships lower stress, cortisol, inflammation, pain and blood pressure.

They boost immune functioning, mood and recovery after injury. Supportive relationships can also help people with serious disease and cancer live longer.

So how do we combat loneliness, bond more with others and improve our health?

“The Rabbit Effect” shows that connection is around us every day: our homes, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and broader social community — if we just take the time to connect.

The goal is to improve the quantity and quality of our relationships. Here are three ideas:

“The Rabbit Effect” shows connection to others is the hidden factor to health. So hop to it!

Kelli Harding, MD, MPH is the author of “The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness” (Atria), out Tuesday. Harding will be speaking at the Strand Book Store downtown on Thursday, Sept. 5, at 7 p.m.

Source: Read Full Article