By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
After making your gift list and checking it twice, don’t forget to put the best gift you can give at the top of that list: being present with your family and loved ones. The true value of the holidays is connecting with the people you love and care for, and spending time with them. Whether this means in-person or via Zoom, Skype or a phone call, the important thing is to connect.
From 40-plus years of practicing medicine, I’ve known that the need for connection lies at the very heart of human existence. Our ability to connect with ourselves and establish healthy and positive family relations is central to what makes us ill and what makes us healthy, what brings on sadness and what brings joy, what makes us hurt and what helps us heal.
Connection and Longevity
Connection may extend life. This fact has been substantiated many times by scientific research. A good example is a University of South Carolina study of 321 adults, aged 40 to 64 years, who were married, living with a partner, or otherwise single. After adjusting for diet, alcohol consumption, exercise, smoking, and other lifestyle factors, the researchers found that the single people had shorter “telomeres” than the other participants. Telomeres are proteins at the end of our chromosomes. Shorter telomeres are associated with a lower life expectancy.
Lonely Hearts: Connection and Heart Health
The lack of vital connections can also injure the heart, literally. I learned this as I trained as a psychotherapist. I began realizing that there were many missing links in health and healing, namely emotional and psychological issues such as suppressed anger. As I probed more deeply, I saw that not just anger, but the loss of love (what I call heartbreak), a lack of relationships with family and friends, and emotional isolation all contribute to heart disease as strongly as smoking, diet, inactivity, and other physical risk factors.
Much research backs me up on this. In a fascinating study conducted at San Diego State University, researchers assessed carotid and coronary artery health, along with cardiovascular risk factors, in 393 women. These assessments, including ultrasound and electron beam tomography, were made at the beginning of the study and then 11 to 14 years later. Women in happy marriages had the least atherosclerosis and tended to show less rapid progression of carotid artery disease, compared to individuals in unsatisfying marriages. Women without partners had intermediate levels of artery degeneration. The researchers concluded, “High-quality marriages may protect against cardiovascular disease for women.” Similar marital effects on men have been known for a long time. This study is important, considering that heart disease is the number-one killer of women.
Over the last two COVID years, so many people have experienced heartbreak due to loss of loved ones or social isolation. I’ve given numerous interviews on the topic and cannot stress enough the importance of living a heart-healthy lifestyle in addition to nurturing our vital connections.
The Quality and Frequency of Connection
Many of us feel happiness in the presence of people with whom we really wish to be with. Interacting with important family members and friends we love creates a positive energy that springs from feelings of love. These feelings originate deep inside of us and are a tremendous source of nurturance, peace, and tranquility.
In 2015, researchers at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas, asked two interesting questions: Does the source of social support (partner, relative, or friend) matter in regard to health and longevity? Does the frequency of contact make a difference? To find out, they analyzed a survey on social support taken by 12,709 men and women (ages 18 to 90) back in 1990. The participants were followed through December 31, 2003, or until the date of death.
A statistical analysis showed that receiving social support from relatives reduced mortality risk by 19 percent; and receiving partner or spousal support also reduced mortality risk. So basically, support from someone very close to you (a family relative) has a positive impact on your health,
The study also found that if people had social contact with six or seven friends on a weekly basis, they reduced their chances of dying by 24 percent. The results of this study were published in 2015 in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
These findings and others like them are just further proof to me that, no matter if someone is ill or healthy, or very young or very old, people need other people. It is like the Dalai Lama once said: “We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection.”
Connect During the Holidays
I can’t think of a better time to take this information to heart than during holidays. Here are my recommendations:
- Make time to engage with the people you love, whether it’s planning an activity together, gathering for a holiday meal, or exchanging gifts. Such family activities create powerful bonds that will enrich the lives of those you love and those who love you. If you can’t meet in person (no small feat, these days), schedule a phone or video call.
- Keep your sense of humor. Yes, the holidays can be stressful, but if you spend your time fixating on stress, you’ll miss opportunities to be in the moment with people you love. Holidays are time-limited, so keep in mind the virtues of love and sharing that give meaning to your time together.
- Make memories. Take pictures of moments with close friends and family so that in the future you can look back on these times with fondness. If you can’t get together with the people you’re close with, look at pictures taken in the past, perhaps even together over a video call.
- Light candles for those no longer with you, except in spirit. This simple ritual will help bind you together with your loved ones even more strongly.
- Volunteer for a charity you believe in, especially if you find yourself alone during the holidays. You’ll benefit from a positive physiological response – a “helper’s high” that can make you feel more joyous, energetic, and less lonely.
- Adopt a pet. I often gave this “prescription” to patients who had recently lost a spouse to divorce or death. With their unconditional love, pets are great healers and wonderful companions!
- Engage more with your community or religious affiliations.
- Get social. Invite others to be with you if you are not invited by others.
- Continue to strengthen your connections all year, rather than trying to have just a few intense days of caring during the holidays.
This holiday season I’ll support my favorite charities and give presents to my loved ones, but I know that it will be in the simplest of moments that I give the best gift, the gift of myself.
- Mainous AG 3rd, et al. Leukocyte telomere length and marital status among middle-aged adults. Age and Ageing. 2011;40(1):73-78.
- Gallo LC, et al. Marital status, marital quality, and atherosclerotic burden in postmenopausal women. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2003;65(6):952-962.
- Becofsky KM, et al. Influence of the Source of Social Support and size of social network on all-cause mortality. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2015;90(7):895-902.
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.