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Thriving through social connections

Thriving Through Social Connections

Al Waller: Connecting socially and spending time with friends or family – simply put, feels good for the soul. To the contrary, though, too much time on your own could leave you feeling out of touch and produce feelings of loneliness. So, it's probably in your best interest to strike a balance and make an effort to spend time connecting with others.

Welcome back to ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM. I’m your host, Al Waller. With me is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert of nonprofit Transamerica Institute®, to talk about the benefits of social networks, and she’ll be unpacking what socialization is, why it’s important for our health, how the lack of socialization can lead to health problems, who is most at risk, and how to get more of it—even if you’re not a social butterfly.

Before we get started, I want to remind our listeners that we would love to hear from you and get to know what topics you’d like to hear about. Please drop us a line at [email protected].

Mihaela, welcome back to the show today.

Mihaela Vincze: Hi – good to be here.

Al Waller: I know spending time with loved ones can be fun and enjoyable – and entertaining – but could you start us off by identifying or defining exactly what is “socialization”?

Mihaela Vincze: Socialization is this practice that encourages social encounters with people in our lives – our friends, family, co-workers…lots of different people that we come across. Building social networks and participating in social activities are great for helping you feel supported, but not only are these efforts fun for some, they may even provide health benefits.

Al Waller: Well, I think most would agree that any means we can use to improve our health, especially in this day and age – connecting and sharing our life experience with others – would be worthwhile. Now, let's dig a little deeper in terms of why socialization can be so vitally important.

Mihaela Vincze: From the day we are born, social interaction is essential to keeping us alive and healthy. As we get older, having social ties promotes a sense of safety, belonging, and security. Socialization also allows us to confide in others and lets them confide in us, but that’s not all. Connecting socially is also crucial for brain health, especially as we age.

Al Waller: I'm definitely on board on that front, Mihaela, and generally speaking, we are a social species. Now, I'd really be interested in knowing if and how social interaction can play a role in keeping our brains healthy.

Mihaela Vincze: A 2017 study published by researchers at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center of Northwestern University Fienberg School of Medicine found that individuals 80 and over, with the mental agility of those who were 50-years-old, all had one thing in common…a close-knit group of friends. The good news is that you do not have to be a social butterfly to reap the benefits of socializing, as there are many ways to socialize that may be within your comfortable level.

Al Waller: Good to know. What steps would you recommend in helping people increase their social time?

Mihaela Vincze: If you feel like going out of your way to see someone in person is too much to add to your to-do list, it may be a good idea to simply have a video chat with a family member or friend. There are games you can play together, or you can even watch a movie while on video chat together. Just remember, having time to be social is not a privilege, it’s really a necessity for our health.

Al Waller: I'll buy that. You've offered some sound observations for those who already have a considerable network of friends and loved ones. However, what sort of recommendations would you make for those who may want to expand their circles?

Mihaela Vincze: If you are looking for ways to meet new people, searching for a volunteer opportunity can be a really awesome way to help you make new friends and give you a sense of purpose all while making a difference in your community.

Al Waller: There’s nothing like bonding through a common cause, and I know many people – myself included – who have had a lot of fun and enjoyed volunteering. So, what other avenues would you recommend to help us socialize?

Mihaela Vincze: You can join an organization – there are clubs for all kinds of activities! I mean, you can really find groups on knitting, books, sports, board games, gardening, even your faith-based organization might have lots of different clubs going on. I joined an exercise class, which is an awesome way for me to stay connected but also stay in shape at the same time. The list goes on – it's really wonderful what you can do by taking the time to do your homework.

Al Waller: Absolutely, there are a ton of resources out there to help folks stay connected or reconnect for that matter. As a matter of fact, I know a group of women who were all pretty good athletes back in their day who took up ice hockey in their 40’s. But now, I'd like to turn our attention to something that in general does not bode well for our health – and that's isolation. So, perhaps you could expand on that.

Mihaela Vincze: According to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, isolation carries a risk of mortality that is like that of other risk factors, such as smoking. People with strong social connections tend to have better health behaviors, like eating healthy and being physically active. And people with strong social connections also may live longer and healthier lives, according to a 2010 metanalysis published in the Public Library of Science Medicine.

Al Waller: I'm hearing a lot of incentives to continue socializing efforts. Who would you say is at risk of being isolated?

Mihaela Vincze: There are a few groups who may be especially susceptible to isolation—I’ll dive into these because I think it’s important for us to have an awareness so those who are vulnerable can take extra steps to stay connected—but also others can offer added support.

Al Waller: For sure. Who would you consider to be the most at risk and vulnerable?

Mihaela Vincze: New Moms – new Motherhood comes with many joys and challenges – caring for a new baby, shifting from working to being at home, and maybe having less energy to spare on lots of activities – including socializing – can all contribute to feeling overwhelmed and alone. Now these are all valid reasons, but it's just important for new moms to keep in mind that they don't have to face these struggles alone.

I also want to touch on older adults. Isolation was an issue for this group, even before the pandemic, for those over sixty. A study published in early 2020 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, reported that 43 percent of adults aged 60 or older said that they had felt lonely. Older adults often live alone and disabilities like hearing and vision loss can lead to isolation, according to Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

Al Waller: I think that's a great point, Mihaela, especially in terms of reaching out to those who are older in our lives. On a personal note, I observed how my dad was involved in community outreach and saw not only the benefits he provided to some of his senior contacts, but also, the pleasure he felt afterwards. I've made an effort to follow in his footsteps and found all of this incredibly affirming, as well.

Are there any other groups out there that are prone to isolation?

Mihaela Vincze: Social isolation also affects our immigrant communities. This could be because of language barriers, economic challenges, and limited social ties, according to Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. For instance, a 2021 study published in the Journal of Ethnicity and Health found that Asian Americans, who were middle-aged and had limited English proficiency, also had higher odds of being socially isolated from both family and friends.

Social isolation also affects members of the LGBTQ+ community too. They may face rejection from family and friends, discrimination, harassment, and violence, according to an article published in Psychology Today. Having to face stigmas may lead to feeling socially isolated.

Again, these groups may benefit from getting a little extra support from the people in their lives but also from going out of their way to connect more.

Al Waller: Thank you for that sensitive observation because I agree that a level of awareness is important to have going forward.

I think you've mentioned that isolation carries a higher risk of mortality. Are there other serious health issues that may stem from isolation?

Mihaela Vincze: There are quite a few health issues that stem from isolation, and unfortunately, they are quite serious:

Al Waller: And all you have to do, really, is follow the daily news to hear about some individuals – disabled, susceptible – by isolation, ultimately leading to some awful and tragic consequences. Well, perhaps now would be a good time to examine some of the health benefits of socialization.

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, there are a lot of health benefits. Socialization increases happiness and well-being – it can also boost your immune system. A social life also helps reduce stress – chronic stress compromises hormone regulation in the body, which can really hurt your body in many ways.

Socialization also improves cognitive skills. A 2017 study assessed how social activities affected adults over the age of 50. Those who belonged to social communities and participated in social activities, as well as had support systems were found to have healthier cognitive function. They had better emotional regulation, processing speed, working memory, and verbal fluency.

Al Waller: Quality of life is not overrated and a great reason to socialize. To that point – can socialization change the longevity of our lives?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, it can. A study showed that those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer tend to do better if they have access to social support and interaction, suggesting that just by being around a support system can give us strength, which can impact our longevity.

Al Waller: Well, can't say I find those results particularly surprising, but what about introverts who prefer not to socialize?

Mihaela Vincze: Good question! Even if you are an introvert, having a community of people you enjoy being around has major perks. Human connection helps provide a sense of purpose and people you can lean on during difficult times, which is something that both introverts and extroverts can benefit from.

You don’t have to give up your alone time to still get the benefits of socializing. Just find activities and groups you really like – book clubs, game nights, exercise groups, or classes. When people feel supported, they tend to have greater self-esteem, which may reduce the risk for mental health disorders too.

Al Waller: Great points – and I think we can agree that enjoying a little bit of me time in one's own company, in moderation, is a good thing. So, playing devil's advocate, are there any negative aspects to socialization?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, the stress from having no or negative social relationships may contribute to poor health habits, such as a sedentary lifestyle or alcohol abuse. Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) were also associated with a29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. Socializing beyond your level of comfort can also be taxing on our mental health.

Al Waller: Well, that's understandable and goes back to one of my favorite and guiding principles – moderation in all things.

In terms of developing and maintaining quality relationships, where can people turn to get help?

Mihaela Vincze: There a few national organizations with helpful resources:

  • VolunteerMatch.org is a volunteer recruiting platform, which can pair your skillset with volunteer opportunities.
  • AARP’s Community Connection provides help for finding volunteer opportunities, grocery pick up, and lends emotional support.
  • The National Eldercare Locator, a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging, can also connect you to services for older adults and their families.

Al Waller: Thank you again, Mihaela! Those all sound like some pretty formidable and very promising resources.

If you’d like to check out any of the source materials mentioned today, visit transamericainstitute.org/podcast to review the episode’s transcript.

And don’t miss our recent episodes on interest rates explained, the health benefits of pet ownership, and life priorities changing.

If you have comments, feedback, or topic ideas, please reach out to [email protected].

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about health and wellness, employment, financial literacy, longevity, and retirement. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org/podcast.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.