September 1, 2010

USA: Personal connections are good for your health

TORRANCE, California / Daily Breeze / Life & Culture / September 1, 2010

By Helen Dennis

I am a 74-year-old divorced woman who is somewhat introverted. I enjoy being alone. My children tell me that for my health, I need to be more involved with other people. What's the true story here?  - D.M.

Dear D.M.:
Your children have a point. In the recently published book "The Longevity Prescription: The 8 Proven Keys to a Long Healthy Life" (Avery, 2010), the late, noted geriatrician Dr.Robert N. Butler devotes two chapters to the subject.

He sums up the issue in three words:
"Connectivity enhances health"

Researchers have documented the impact of relationships in several areas:

Social networks seem to lower the risks of alcoholism, depression and even arthritis.

Patients after surgery require less pain medication and recover more quickly when they have caring people around them.

Married people live longer.

Lonely older women have higher blood pressure compared to women who have someone in whom they can confide their problems.

Men who live in supportive environments have lower levels of stress hormones.

Butler concludes that having caring people around you, or just having contact with them by phone, Internet or other means, is a special kind of health insurance.

Connections can be established through nurturing relationships and by engaging with a larger community.

Let's first address the nurturing relationships. Butler suggests the following tips, which are ageless:

Remember that friends like you to listen. Sometimes friends may just need to vent anger, or share a story or something wonderful that occurred in their lives. A tuned-in friend knows when it is time to listen, or to offer advice or constructive criticism.

Don't forget to think before you speak. It's good to be honest, yet it also is possible to be kind at the same time. Consider your friend's priorities and sensitivities.

Know your audience. Distinguish between what your friends are interested in and what you just want them to know. Be aware if you are enamored with the sound of your own voice.

Think of friends first. Remember to ask about them before you describe everything that happened during your day. This holds true even with longtime friends.

Avoid being presidential. You may be in charge of your work or even your family. But avoid thinking that you are in charge of every relationship or personal exchange.

Express your feelings. If it feels right, tell people you love them, that they have made a difference in your life. Let them know if you are happy to see them.

Don't smother. Do express yourself, yet be aware of friends' boundaries and comfort zones.

Be accessible. Cell phones help. It makes staying in touch easier. Sending a text message reminds a person you are thinking of her without requiring a response. Actually, snail mail does the same - a note goes a long way.

Share food with friends. Breaking bread together still works. A meal, lunch, ice cream, coffee or a snack sets the right tone to talk and be with another.

Relationships can change over time because of divorce, death, retirement or relocation. It can be daunting to start over.

Here are a few more tips:

Consider determining what you want in a friend, attend community events, join some groups or take a trip.

Look into the Road Scholar program, formerly known as Elderhostel. The program offers learning and traveling opportunities in every state and in 90 countries. Most "scholars" are over 50 and share a love for learning. Single adults are made to feel very welcome. For information, call 800-454-5768.

D.M., thank you for your good question. Clearly you cannot go against your nature of preferring to be alone. However, consider broadening your circle just a bit. Those relationships will likely add more than health and longevity to your life.

At the same time, your new friends will be enriched too.

Helen Dennis is a specialist in aging, with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience.

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