Q: Since I retired, I am feeling lonelier and lonelier. My kids live on the other side of the country, and many friends have died or moved away. What can I do to break this cycle?
— Karen B. Richmond, Virginia
A: You’re not alone in your feelings of loneliness. The Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, recently issued a report on loneliness, explaining that half of American adults say they feel lonely at least some of the time. This is both an emotional and a physical health issue. Folks who experience chronic loneliness increase their risk for dementia, depression, anxiety, and their risk of heart disease goes up by 29%, stroke by 32%.
There are solutions. Some come from outside resources and some from within each individual. To make the most of their combined benefits, experts say you should think about being lonely like you would any health challenge: It’s something to be treated.
• So, step 1: Recognize that you’re feeling lonely. Then make an inventory of things that provide you with pleasure. You can lessen loneliness by doing activities that stimulate your mind and keep you occupied — like painting or reading or gardening.
• Step 2: Reach out to friends and acquaintances. Call three friends, or even associates, each week … schedule it.
• Step 3: Explore local resources that will help you interact with others and find a purpose through helping other people. Online, volunteermatch.org identifies local options for all zip codes. Organizations like United Way also offer opportunities.
• Step 4: Talk to your doctor about any symptoms of chronic loneliness you have, from depression to high blood pressure and take steps to improve your physical health. At the Cleveland Clinic, primary care doctors have adopted the program called “social prescribing.”
We write that order and it connects you with activities and groups that you express interest in. Ask your doctor about “social prescribing” resources and connecting with classes and volunteer activities in your area.
Q: What can I do to lower my risk of feeling depressed?
— Gina R., Chicago
A: Chronic severe depression needs to be treated by a combination of talk therapy and medication. The good news is that for many folks it responds to intervention, especially when combined with depression-fighting lifestyle choices.
Aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce (and prevent) depression significantly. One meta-study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that when someone who is depressed exercises, it can raise their spirits as much as or more than taking medication. Group and supervised exercise is the most effective.
Diet also has a large impact. A study by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that people who eat highly processed, packaged foods are prone to depression — especially if they eat the equivalent of nine or more portions a day.
Artificial sweeteners were also found to fuel depression. On top of that, another study found that when over 20% of your daily calories come from ultra-processed foods, your risk of cognitive decline goes up 28%.
A plant-based diet that eliminates red and processed meats and added sugars reduces those risks significantly.
Solutions? A new study by an international team of researchers published in Nature Mental Health looked at data on around 290,000 people — 13,000 with depression — for nine years and found these lifestyle habits lower the risk of depression: seven to nine hours of sleep; frequent social interaction; moderate alcohol consumption; healthy diet; regular exercise; less sendentary behavior.
If your depression is chronic and/or severe, get medical help and try these lifestyle mood-boosters. For occasional blues, tune up your diet, exercise and other daily habits. You will trade in the blues for blue skies.
Health pioneer Michael Roizen, M.D., is chief wellness officer emeritus at the Cleveland Clinic and author of four No. 1 New York Times bestsellers. Check out his latest, “The Great Age Reboot: Cracking the Longevity Code for a Younger Tomorrow,” and find out more at www.longevityplaybook.com. Email your health and wellness questions to Dr. Mike at email@example.com.