Loneliness, Social Isolation and the effect on your health

Loneliness, social isolation
Loneliness, Social Isolation and the effect on your health
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About the Author

Gary J. Machan

Gary J. Machan

Gary Machan serves on the Community Advisory Research Committee for the Canadian Index of Wellbeing. Through the course of his career he has received several provincial awards including the 2nd Stage of Medicare, Ontario Tobacco Network Innovation Award for Excellence, and Food Champion Award. In addition, Mr. Machan is an associate with the Centre for Inner Freedom where his work was featured by Tom Harpur in his best selling book ‘Finding the Still Point’.

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At the time John Lennon wrote ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, little did most people know he was actually sending out an SOS in terms of his own need for help in his struggles with his personal demons including loneliness; overwhelmed as he was with emotional issues catching up with him precipitated by the pressures of mega-stardom.

As hard as it is to imagine the likes of John Lennon suffering for want of good friends, the hard truth is he was no stranger to loneliness. Bounced around as a child, at one point he was even forced to live in a foster home. John Lennon was very much a man who had no sense of roots and the social stability that this in turn engenders.

And yet, these traumatic early years provided the grist to give voice to such universal motifs as the yearning for love and friendship such as Lennon is renowned for. Themes that social scientists now know are far more important to our health and wellbeing, than all that we have been conditioned by the medical establishment to associate as requirements for good health.

At one recent conference, best-selling author Susan Pinker who just released her latest book ‘The Village Effect’ shared several startling facts with the audience. Such as the second most important factor impacting on how long we live is the extent to which we have access to a few good friends we can count on at times of need. This ranks only behind social integration which speaks to the extent we are members of groups and have a sense of belonging.

Just to put this in perspective, belonging ranks higher than all other lifestyle factors in determining our health status including smoking and diet. Plus, loneliness is the greatest risk factor in determining whether someone becomes a high cost user of the health care system. Bear in mind, two thirds of all health care expenditures are spent on the top 5% of health care users.

The trouble is the entities charged with overseeing health care services, Local Health Integrated Networks are so locked into what is commonly referred to as a ‘medical model’ way of seeing things i.e. you are the sum total of diseases, they give no consideration to the factors that most impact on people’s health and thereby health care costs. This despite the fact several leading Health Links are demonstrating how minimum investments to combat social isolation/loneliness can yield major cost savings to the system.

Case in point is a recent provincial award Transformation recipient, North Simcoe Health Link, which incorporated into their intake process questions designed to help professionals determine the extent to which their patients are isolated, so that appropriate referrals and interventions could be immediately introduced. Quite aside from the improved quality of life for the patients, the net savings to the system far exceeded costs.

Fortunately, there are several initiatives underway aimed to rectify the current ‘you are the sum total of your diseases’ mindset with a specific focus on increasing belonging. The Association of Ontario Health Centres is developing a Social Isolation Screening Tool soon to be piloted by several leading community health centres across the province. This too could result in significant improved health and system outcomes.

This notwithstanding some hard questions need to be posed to the Local Health Integrated Networks regarding why all of the measures by which they hold health care providers accountable are medically based such as PAP smears, when the hard evidence makes it abundantly clear patients would benefit far more from doctors prescriptions advising their patients to be become more socially connected.

The good news is the Local Health Integrated Networks are now mandated by the Minister of Health to address the determinants of health by supporting health promotion interventions. Perhaps, this might provide a catalyst to bring about a truly transformed health care system such as was envisioned at the onset instead of the continuation of the current illness system propagated by those in positions of authority.

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