The Healing Effects of Social Connection

Valerie PatmintraBrain Health, Cognitive Aging

Earlier this month, the Surgeon General issued an advisory on the loneliness epidemic highlighting that in recent years about one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness. The reports notes that loneliness is much more serious than just feeling sad or alone – it has serious consequences for both individual and societal health.  

Loneliness has been linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. Loneliness and poor social connections are also associated with an increased risk of anxiety, depression and dementia.

Benefits of Social Connection

In fact, social connection has been widely studied as a significant factor in helping increase longevity, as well as better physical, cognitive and mental health. One study that followed older adults over 12 years, found that cognitive abilities declined 20 percent faster among those who reported loneliness compared to those who didn’t.

To combat the loneliness epidemic in America, the Surgeon General’s report calls on us all to build more connected lives as the first step to building a more connected society. You can start now by strengthening your relationships and connections with family in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month. 

While poor mental health is unfortunately common among older adults and linked to high rates of morbidity and mortality, a recent study found an encouraging 23 percent reduction in mental distress among older adults living in multigenerational households compared to their counterparts who lived alone.

With research showing having family support is critical to the mental health and well-being of older adults and our society as a whole, what are the keys to building and maintaining strong family connections?

Keys to Building & Maintaining Family Connections

  1. Find Time for One-on-One Bonding: Families often think of “family time” as spending time together as a unit and the individual needs of family members may be overlooked. If you have parents that live nearby, try to spend time with each one in a different way and encourage your kids to talk to and find common interests with their grandparents as individuals.
  2. Share Meals: Sharing meals together may be more difficult for families that are no longer under one roof, but try to set aside an evening once a week or even once a month to bring the whole family together. Sharing a meal together is a simple yet effective way to allow family members to talk about themselves in a highly-supportive environment.
  3. Support Lifelong Learning: By committing to being a lifelong learner, you acknowledge that you don’t know it all and there is always room to grow and learn something new. While you may already have strong family connections, relationships and people change over time. By recognizing this change and continuing to reach out and find new ways to connect with your family, your relationships will evolve and thrive even with the changes life brings. 
  4. Know When to Apologize: Apologizing isn’t easy, especially when your feelings have been hurt. Taking time to recognize your own mistakes and using empathy to better understand other perspectives will go a long way toward creating strong family connections. By acknowledging and apologizing for your part in family conflict, you set an example for other family members and encourage them to seek more empathetic conflict resolution. 
  5. Get Involved and Show Interest: For adults and children alike, it’s human desire to want to feel understood. Finding ways to encourage and take part in your family members’ interests creates natural bonding opportunities. Whether you share a mutual love of music with one of your children or go with your parents to a community game night, finding time to take part in their interests will keep your relationship strong. 

While some of these suggestions may sound simple, try incorporating a few in your life to further your bonds and find new ways to build strong connections as a family. Maintaining and fostering your family connections will help boost your mental health and may even increase your longevity.

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