Are you lonely? Is someone you care about lonely? Loneliness might seem like just a painful, contracted emotion, but it's also an out-of-control public health epidemic.
Did you know that loneliness increases mortality risk by 45 percent, more than alcohol abuse at 37 percent, obesity at 23 percent, and air pollution at 6 percent? Did you know that loneliness is a greater risk factor for your health than smoking 15 cigarettes per day?
Did you know that gathering together in loving community can cure loneliness and ultimately protect your health? Yup. It's true, and there's scientific evidence to prove it.
The Power of the Tribe
Let's examine what happened in Roseto, Pennsylvania, back in 1961. One day, a visiting cardiologist was having a drink at the local bar with one of the physicians who took care of the people of Roseto. He remarked with obvious surprise that the people of Roseto never seemed to die of heart disease. In fact, he said, they never seemed to die of cancer or get sick either. They simply died of old age in a way that seemed unusual.
The cardiologist's interest was piqued. When he examined the death records at the local hospital, he discovered that, sure enough, the people of Roseto had half the rate of heart disease as the rest of the country. In fact, their rates of every kind of disease were significantly lower. What was going on? He brought in a team of researchers to study the people of Roseto and find out.
Expecting to discover something protective in their diet or their DNA, researchers were baffled to find that the townspeople ate meatballs fried in lard because they couldn't afford their native olive oil. They gorged on pizza and pasta, they smoked and drank, and most of them were obese. What?
The researchers figured it must be something genetic, but they ruled that out too, along with ruling out any superior health care, better water supply, or other environmental protective factor.
They finally concluded that the people of Roseto were as healthy as they were because nobody in Roseto was ever lonely. Roseto, Pennsylvania, in the 1960s was living proof of the power of the clan.
Picture a Community Where You Belong
Back in the 1960s, if you had wandered upon this small town of Italian immigrants, you would have seen people returning from a hard day at work in the rock quarries or blouse factories, but as they returned home, grimy from their efforts, they would stroll along the village's main street, where Main Street was like the television bar Cheers, where everybody knows your name. You'd see villagers stopping to gossip with the neighbors and maybe sharing a glass of wine before heading home to change into dinner clothes. You'd see women gathering together in communal kitchens, preparing classic Italian feasts, while men pushed tables together in anticipation of the nightly ritual that gathered the community together over heaping piles of pasta, sausage, pizza, and free-flowing vino.
As a community of new immigrants surrounded by English and Welsh neighbors who turned up their noses at the Italians, the people of Roseto had to look out for one another. Multigenerational homes were the norm, with Grandma and the babies all sharing small but intimate spaces. During the week, everyone went to the same workplaces, and on Sundays, everyone went to church together. Neighbors wandered in and out of one another's kitchens regularly, and holidays were joyously celebrated communally.
The people of Roseto took care of one another. Nobody in Roseto was left to struggle through life alone. While they smoked, drank booze every night, and ate junk food, the people of Roseto had half the risk of heart attack deaths as the rest of the country, not because of genetics, better doctors, or something in their water supply but because loving, intimate community is protective for your health.
Then Everything Changed…
As time went on, the younger generation wasn't so thrilled about life in Roseto, which to them seemed immune to modernization. The young people were seduced by the American Dream. They went off in search of education, money, fame, and shiny, flashy things. They went off to college and brought back to Roseto new ideas, new dreams, and new people. Italian Americans started marrying non-Italians. The children strayed from the church, joined country clubs, and moved into single-family suburban houses with fences and pools.
With these changes, the multigenerational homes disbanded and the community lifestyle shifted gears from nightly celebrations to more of the typical "every man for himself" philosophy that fueled the neighboring communities. The neighbors who would regularly drop in for casual visits started phoning each other to schedule appointments. The evening rituals of adults singing songs while children played with marbles and jacks turned into nights of social isolation, zoning out in front of the television.
In 1971, when heart attack rates in other parts of the country were dropping because of widespread adoption of healthier diets and regular exercise programs, Roseto had its first heart attack death in someone younger than 45. Over the next decade, heart disease rates in Roseto doubled. The incidence of high blood pressure tripled. And the number of strokes increased. Sadly, by the end of the 1970s, the number of fatal heart attacks in Roseto had increased to the national average.
As it turns out, human beings nourish each other, and the health of the body reflects this.
The Physiology of Loneliness
When you know you are loved, when you feel that sense of belonging, your nervous system relaxes and your body's natural self-healing mechanisms switch on. On the other hand, when you feel like you don't fit in, when you're stuck in the story of separation, feeling separate from other people, your nervous system goes into fight-or-flight and your risk of heart disease, cancer, infections, and every other kind of illness skyrockets. Yet when was the last time your doctor prescribed "Cure your loneliness" as part of a treatment plan or preventive health regimen?
Loneliness may be the greatest risk factor for your health, more so than a poor diet, bad habits, or lack of exercise, so why are doctors not talking about this when one in five American is lonely? That's 60 million people, people—and that's just in the U.S. Loneliness hurts, yet we feel helpless in the face of it. We don't realize that the cure for our loneliness lives right inside of us, that we already have all that we need to have all that we want.
The No. 1 Public Health Issue Doctors Aren’t Talking About
We belong to one another, beloveds. Let's launch a public health initiative here. Let's cure loneliness—one hug at a time, one dinner invitation at a time, one hospital visit at a time. If you're not lonely, spread the wealth of your love and community. Open your heart and your home and reach out to someone who needs your love. Make your love a gift to someone who needs it, not just because it feels good to serve but because it fulfills you to be someone else's medicine.
We are all in this together.