Health professionals might be better able to find people at risk if they know to look more deeply at an individual's social environment. So rather than only focusing on those who seem to be entirely socially isolated, health care workers could also encourage friendship and personal connectedness for a larger number of people—thus perhaps boosting overall population survival rates.
Some clinicians have prescribed social interaction for those who seem to be severely isolated, but that often comes in the form of a paid companion. Such a dynamic is "not always effective," Holt-Lunstad says. "A naturally occurring friendship is very different than someone who has been hired to be your buddy or your friend." Research has shown that friends "provide a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives," she says. A professional "friend" "might be able to provide some tangible resources that would be helpful, but they might not be able to provide the emotional benefits."
Likewise with digital social interactions, Holt-Lunstad says, "there are types of things you can get from an online friend, but there are other resources that you cannot." Although online connections "might be better than nothing," substituting time in front of a screen is likely not as beneficial as a phone call or face-to-face conversation.
Given the increasingly apparent importance of social well-being for physical health, standard checkup questions asked by a physician might soon include inquiries into the patient's social, family and work circles—in addition to the standard list about smoking, diet and exercise.
Although social and physical health are intimately linked, Holt-Lunstad does not see it as a purely medical issue. She suggests a range of avenues to address the social fitness of the population: from school curriculums emphasizing good social skills to city planning that reinforce community building to workplaces that accentuate human interaction.