“Make new friends, but keep the old, One is silver and the other is gold.”
As a young child, I can remember singing this tune while jumping rope or skipping around the playground. At that time I didn’t fully grasp the significance of what I was singing, but now I have come to appreciate and understand that social connection and a sense of belonging is important, not only for emotional and mental health but for physical health as well.
Numerous studies over the past several decades have consistently shown that social interaction has positive benefits to our health and well-being. The potential benefits cited in many of these studies include reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, reduced risk of Alzheimer’s, reduced blood pressure, and reduced mental health issues such as depression and alcoholism. More recent studies are focusing on the positive impact that social interaction may have on optimizing our brain functioning.
In 2010, a meta-analysis examined 148 different studies that looked at the impact of social isolation on a person’s mortality. The authors reported that social isolation may actually be one of the biggest risk factors for human mortality (Holt-Lunstad, J, Smith, TB, Layton, JB. 2010. Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analysis Review. PLoS Med 7(7)). To help illustrate the data, they compared the negative impact of social isolation to more common risk factors and reported that low social interaction is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, being an alcoholic, or never exercising.
So what does this have to do with living with MS? In my work with MS patients, I am struck by how often I hear patients tell me that their social circle has dwindled or has disappeared altogether. There are a number of reasons for why this occurs but inevitably it seems to be an all too common occurrence.
Staying connected to family and friends or making a decision to develop new friendships has never been more important, and in many cases, has never been easier. The digital age allows us to stay connected via cell phone, texts, email, skype, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and so on. In fact, we can even meet and make virtual friends that live miles away or even in a different country.
So what can you do to develop more robust social connections? Volunteer. Become a mentor. Participate at your local recreation or senior center. Take a class and learn something new. Join a gym or fitness center. Join a group focused on activities that you enjoy. Get on line. Smile, make eye contact, and introduce yourself to others.
It is never too soon to start!