04/17/2014 10:30 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

People Need People

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I'm around people all day: listening to them, talking with them and working with them. Most days, people are great, but at the end of some days, I have to admit, a desert island sounds really good. Of course, that desire for aloneness doesn't last long. I'm a professional counselor, after all, and people are simply part of the deal; a therapist without any patients doesn't stay in business long. People are part of my professional health, and it's becoming more obvious that people are also part of my personal health.

Chicago University's Center for Cognitive and Neuroscience came out recently with a study outlining the negatives of loneliness among older adults. The research by psychologist John Cacioppo "showed that loneliness has twice the impact on early death as obesity does." To put a number to that, what the study termed "extreme loneliness" can increase the chances of premature death by 14 percent. The following effects of loneliness were outlined in the study: disturbed sleep; elevated blood pressure; increases in the stress hormone, cortisol; "problems for the body's immune system"; increased depression and lowered well-being. Simply put, people need other people; we need human connection for health, especially as we age.

The results of this study are intuitive; we have a sense that we need to be around other people. I get a bit concerned, though, what our definition of "around other people" is becoming with the rise of technology. Technology creates access but I'm not so sure it creates genuine connection. I remembered reading an article a couple of years ago entitled, "Is Facebook Making You Lonely?" This article started out with the story of an elderly, former, B-grade movie actress who died alone in her house in Los Angeles, becoming mummified before a neighbor finally checked up on her over a year later. This former actress, Yvette Vickers, wasn't technically alone. She had access to people before she died, mostly fans who found her online. Stephen Marche, who wrote the story for The Atlantic, noted, "Vicker's web of connections had grown broader but shallower, as has happened for many of us. We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible." His conclusion reminded me of that classic line from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink." Friended on Facebook may not be the type of connection this study of loneliness would suggest. Cacioppo is quoted as saying, "Older adults, who maintain meaningful, satisfying relationships weather life's stressors to emerge happier, healthier and wiser than people who do not." A portion of those satisfying, meaningful relationships can certainly take place online, but I think they also have to include more.

There is a cost to maintaining meaningful and satisfying relationships. They require the classic parental equation of both quality (substance) and quantity (time). This cost is often considered too high. In The Guardian's take on this study, writer Michele Hanson, asks why we neglect relationships with the elderly and concludes, "Because we haven't got time, we're too busy trying to make a living, or too far away." One day, I won't be the one making those excuses, I'll be the one hearing them.

If you invert the negatives of loneliness and turn them into positives for relationships, they read like this: deeper sleep, reduced blood pressure, reductions in stress, strengthened immune system, lowered depression and increased well-being. That's an impressive list. Many people already seek these benefits through things like exercise or nutritional support. We find money to get supplements at the rate of several billions per year. Though Americans don't exercise nearly as much as we should, one study I read said it still amounted to two hours per week of "sports and fitness activities." We find the time and money to improve our lives in other ways, so maybe it's time to add in a prescription for people.