Your connections with family and friends are good for more than just your social life — having strong relationships can protect your heart.
Studies show loneliness can present the same risk of heart disease that smoking does.
Loneliness can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke by 30%, according to Dr. Ramesh Mazhari, Director of Interventional Cardiology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
"The risk associated with social isolation could be as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese," she said.
"It looks like if you have more friends, you may need less pills,” Mazhari added.
A recent survey by Psychology Today found 47% of Americans feel lonely.
Mazhari said she understands it’s hard for people to get out of loneliness. But knowing so many people go through it should be encouraging. Community groups like Walk with Locals can help.
Walk with Locals is a group Carl Maynard started about four years ago. He said he started the group after seeing a need for a space to learn about photography with no judgement.
"What we are trying to do is become a meeting place for people to just maybe make one or two new friends … It’s real, old-school friend making," he said.
It’s grown from about dozen members to hundreds. Once a month, you can spot strangers meeting up a D.C. landmark to take photos, whether its on their cellphone or a $2,000 camera.
"When we're kids, we’re taught not to talk to strangers, but then when we are adults, we are sort of lost in, wait, how do we make friends as adults? It becomes even harder," Maynard said.
Our heavy focus on social media can make interacting offline difficult, he said he believes.
"We forget sort of how to interact in real life, so what we try to do is bring people together, ask them to put their phones down and just get to know people that live in the same city as they do," Maynard said.
The number of people who are lonely has doubled since the 1980s, according to a report by the former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy.
Mazhari said loneliness has biological effects.
"It can increase the inflammatory markers. Loneliness can directly impact other habits that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Loneliness and social isolation is associated with poor nutrition, poor sleep, poor cooperation with treatment plans … loneliness can lead to depression which, in and of itself, risks cardiovascular disease," she said.
Maynard's next project linked to fighting loneliness is running. He created a Sunday run club for all levels that meets biweekly at Somewhere, a cafe in Navy Yard. Their next run is scheduled for Sunday, March 1 at 10 am. The course is about three miles.
"What we are trying to providing is a space where people know they are not alone, even if they are doing something like being active and going for a run," Maynard said