The New Networking

Growing Your Real-life Social Network is Important for Health.

Women friends discussing book club book at restaurant table (Getty Images).

By Harvard Health

When we’re young, networking can be an important strategy to get ahead in business. Making new acquaintances and building relationships can lead to career opportunities. But later in life, networking takes on new significance: you may need it to stay connected socially. “Your social network shrinks. Your children leave home, you’re no longer at work, or you’ve moved away. And that can lead to isolation and loneliness unless you maintain or rebuild your network,” says Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist who specializes in behavioural neurology and neuropsychiatry at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

ISOLATION AND LONLINESS

Many studies have linked isolation (being cut off from social contact) with a greater chance of having a heart attack or a stroke. A study published online March 27, 2018, by Heart suggested that isolation was independently associated with a 25% to 32% increased risk of death among people followed for seven years who had already had a heart attack or stroke.

Loneliness (feeling sad because of a lack of social contact) also jeopardizes health. “One in six older adults reports feeling lonely much of the time over the course of a week. The effects can be worse than that of obesity or smoking,” Dr. Salinas says. Research suggests loneliness puts you at risk for a faster rate of decline in thinking skills compared with people who aren’t lonely, an increased risk for losing the ability to perform the tasks of daily living, and greater risk for early death.

SOCIAL MEDICINE

Staving off isolation and loneliness becomes a crucial health strategy. “It’s as important as taking medication, exercising, or eating a healthy diet,” Dr. Salinas says.

Don’t just look to your family for socialization. “About once a month you need to be in touch with others outside the core group of your spouse and children. That’s where we see the most health benefits,” Dr. Salinas says.

He advises that you diversify your “social portfolio” by filling it with people who reflect your interests. For example, you may need one person to talk to about shared creative activities like painting, reading, or gardening; another to be available to listen when you’re in need of companionship or emotional support; and another to talk to about intellectually stimulating subjects, such as politics, history, science, or anything you find fascinating.

Group of young people having a party, telling jokes, having a good time, celebrating, in a private home (Getty Images).

BUILDING YOUR NETWORK

You may naturally be good at making friends. If not, remember that expanding your social circle is similar to networking for business: it takes work to find and nurture relationships. “You have to reach out and be friendly first. When you share an activity, that’s how bonds develop,” Dr. Salinas points out.

CONSIDER SOME OF THE FOLLOWING IDEAS TO GET STARTED

Make friends with your neighbors. According to a Pew Research Center report, most Americans don’t even know their neighbors’ names. But neighbors are folks right next door who may offer conversation, share some of your interests, or be there if you need help. Take advantage of the proximity: say hello and chat with a neighbor walking a dog, attend a community association meeting, or just knock on a door and introduce yourself.

Volunteer for a political organization. It’s a big year for elections, and political parties and candidates are always looking for helpers to make phone calls or prepare mailing materials.

Join an adult sports league. If you’re physically cleared to play a sport, call your parks and recreation department to find out about softball, basketball, tennis, or other leagues in your area designed for older athletes.

Get a part-time job. Last month we reported that working later in life is associated with many health benefits, and socialization is an important one.

Mentor young people. High schools are often looking for volunteers with life experience to guide students. So are nonprofit organizations such as the national group Big Brothers Big Sisters (www.bbbs.org) and the Florida group Take Stock in Children (www.takestockinchildren.org).

Join a club that interests you. It could be the local jazz club, cinema society, or model airplane group. “Members will already share your passions and speak your lingo,” points out Dr. Salinas. “That could be comforting.”

Take a class. Sign up for continuing education at a local college. Ask a few classmates to join you for an independent study group after class.

A FEW MORE TIPS

“Remember that not every interaction may be a good fit. But your options to meet people are endless: join a choir, an art class, a fitness club, a board game group. Or just ask an acquaintance to meet for coffee,” Dr. Salinas says. Investing in your social network now will offer a big payoff today and help you avoid deficits in the future.


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