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Social Connections Vital For Mental & Physical Health, Professor Says

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Even before a pandemic had us keeping our distance from one another, Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad was making headlines saying a lack of social connections is bad for our health.

“In the short term we see that it’s associated with distress and distress has been linked to health-relevant physiology, including cardiovascular effects, stress, hormones, inflammation,” Holt-Lunstad said.

According to an often-quoted meta-analysis she published in 2010, having social connections means a 50% higher rate of survival. Lacking connections meant significantly higher rates of heart problems, stroke and functional decline.

She compared the risk of not having social connections to the risk of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

She said whether our current social situation has health consequences depends on how much longer it lasts.

However, officials at Salt Lake County Aging and Adult Services were concerned.

Outside the Kearns Senior Center, workers hand out meals to clients, like Jim Dawes, who would normally eat inside the center.

“It’s been very difficult for my husband,” said Jim’s wife, Nancy. “Five years ago, he was given two to six months to live. And his social interaction and activities here at the senior center brought him back to life.”

“Helped me feel like I belong in the community more,” Jim Dawes said. “Like I was part of what was going on.”

So employees, like outreach worker Toni Wardle, working at home, call clients and others they cannot visit.

“We’re hopeful that it fills in some of that gap. But I think we all know that ultimately, it’s not going to be sustainable over the long term,” said agency spokesperson Afton January.

According to one survey, one in five Americans said they are lonely or lack social connections.

Holt-Lunstad suggested we can try to counteract loneliness by turning off screens and spending more quality time with the people in our household and phoning others. She said meditation, artistic expression and showing gratitude are also known to help.

[Afton January, spokesperson for Salt Lake County Aging and Adult Services, said the agency would like to provide meals and other services to clients, but because they have limited resources, they would like to focus their efforts on those truly in need.]

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