Researchers Examine What Social Isolation Can Do To Men's Health

Aug 21, 2018
Originally published on August 23, 2018 4:18 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Many of us find that our circle of friends gets smaller as we get older, and researchers say this is especially true for men. In this Hidden Brain rebroadcast, NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam looks at social isolation among men and what it can do to their health.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: When Paul Kugelman was a kid growing up in New Jersey, his parents had a simple rule.

PAUL KUGELMAN: Go outside and play, and come home when the street lights come on.

VEDANTAM: When he and his friends got home from school, they dropped off their books and ran outside.

KUGELMAN: We'd do whatever. It was Capture The Flag, football. It was friendship. You had people you could talk to you. You were part of a community of your peers. It was nice.

VEDANTAM: It was also easy. Then when Kugelman was 9, he and his family moved 500 miles south to Virginia. It was the first of several moves. Even though Kugelman didn't realize it at the time, he began to develop a strategy to cope with all the change.

KUGELMAN: I didn't really interact a whole lot with folks 'cause it just was like, we're going to move again. So I didn't want the pain, I guess.

VEDANTAM: He kept up the strategy through college, law school and at work. He put all his energy into his family life and career. In his mid-40s, Kugelman's marriage fell apart. His ex-wife took the kids and moved several hours away.

KUGELMAN: I did go to work, and I did have interactions at work. And I cherished those. But, you know, at the end of the day, it was just me.

VEDANTAM: Kugelman drank heavily for a while. Then he got into exercise. He eventually completed an Ironman triathlon. But these distractions couldn't quite stamp out the fact that he was desperate for friendship, for connection - so desperate that at one point he turned to an inanimate object for comfort.

KUGELMAN: I was in my apartment, and one of the fixtures in the apartment was a post that runs floor-to-ceiling and the banister runs out of that. And the post became my friend. I would hug the post. I would hug the post for all it was worth because I was getting some kind of feedback physically.

VEDANTAM: He knew his loneliness was a problem. But even when he got the courage to reach out to other people, he found himself butting up against unspoken social rules. When he started dating, he noticed how his girlfriend, Kim, and her female friends easily struck up conversations and made new connections.

KUGELMAN: And I had this feeling. If I tried to do that, it would be like, OK, who's the creepy old dude, you know? But I don't - I think there is a stigma for guys.

VEDANTAM: Kugelman is willing to be open about these difficulties, but other men grappling with social isolation have a harder time confiding in others. Some reach for more drastic measures.

Which figure are you looking at here?

JULIE PHILLIPS: Let's see. Figure 2.

VEDANTAM: I spoke to Julie Phillips about this. She's a sociology professor at Rutgers University. Phillips says middle-aged men appear to be increasingly at risk of suicide.

PHILLIPS: We saw a fairly sharp increase in suicide rates among men beginning in 1999. So for example, among men aged 50 to 54, we saw an increase of almost 50 percent in their suicide rate.

VEDANTAM: Now, overall suicide rates in the U.S. have gone down in the last 70 years, but this increase among middle-aged men is troubling. Some researchers say this trend might be driven by economic problems. But Phillips points out that rising suicide rates among middle-aged men began in the late '90s, well before the Great Recession that started in 2007. She has other ideas about what might be going on.

PHILLIPS: The ways in which we interact has changed - the rise of social media, less face-to-face contact. Entertainment has sort of become more private. You know, we watch a movie at home rather than going to a theater, for example.

VEDANTAM: There is no hard evidence that the increase in suicide rates is tied to social isolation. But there is evidence that social isolation, like the kind Paul Kugelman experienced, can affect our mental health and our physical health. An analysis of nearly 150 studies found that people with weak social relationships had about a 50 percent higher mortality risk than people with stronger ties. Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her co-authors concluded that having weak social relationships poses a greater mortality risk than physical inactivity or obesity. Let me put that another way. Spending time building and nurturing friendships might be just as important to your health as eating right and exercising. To get to a place where we prioritize friendships and other social connections, major changes need to happen. But we also ignore smaller, everyday opportunities to connect with others.

NICK EPLEY: Every morning on the train, and over and over again in public spaces, I would see people standing cheek-to-jowl next to each other and ignoring each other.

VEDANTAM: This is Nick Epley. He's a behavioral science professor at the University of Chicago. He and his co-author Juliana Schroeder decided to figure out why people act this way. They ran an experiment that involved commuters. Volunteers were assigned to one of three conditions - engage with the people around them, sit in solitude, or act as they normally would on their commute. People predicted that they would be the least happy if they had to engage with other people on the train. But that's not what the study found.

EPLEY: People reported being happier, less sad and having a more pleasant commute when they connected with the person sitting next to them than when we randomly assigned them to a condition where they were asked to sit in solitude.

VEDANTAM: People believed their fellow commuters wanted to be left alone, but that didn't match reality. In one study, volunteers were asked...

EPLEY: What percentage of people on the train would be interested in talking to you or would be willing to talk to you if you tried? They estimated fewer than 50 percent of people would. As far as we can tell, the actual percentage is much closer to a hundred percent.

VEDANTAM: The study pinpoints what exactly keeps us from connecting with one another.

EPLEY: It's not that people anticipate that having a conversation, once it gets going, will be unpleasant. They think that'll be OK. Instead, the barrier seems to come earlier. There's anxiety about actually starting the conversation, and that's what seems to lead people to predict that it's going to be unpleasant.

VEDANTAM: Paul Kugelman has felt that anxiety, but he fights against it. When he introduces himself to people and gets a cold shoulder, he tries not to take it personally.

KUGELMAN: A rejection of the extension of an offer of friendship or acquaintance-hood isn't a rejection. It's just that that person's not ready.

VEDANTAM: And often, there's someone else who is ready. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONY BONES THE PRODUCER'S "CLASSIC")

GREENE: Shankar is the host of the podcast Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.