Shared Housing: Could It Improve Your Health?

By: Jennifer Logan

Photo: Stock Exchange
Photo: Stock Exchange

For millions of people around the world, it would be fair to say that solitude could very much be considered an epidemic; as sociologist, Eric Klinenberg wrote in his book, Going Solo (2012), living alone is a relatively new phenomenon, virtually nonexistent prior to the 20th century. In 1950, less than 10% of all household were one-person households. Today, over 32.7 million people live alone. This amounts to 28% of all American households.

An enlightening study called Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women, published in March, 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has found that there is an important link between social isolation and increased mortality. The study, which observed a group of 6,500 adults aged 52 and above, found that being socially isolated could cause people to take up negative habits such as smoking or consuming an unhealthy diet, and could discourage them from getting enough exercise. But loneliness and isolation are more than a problem for the elderly; research carried out by social psychologist, John Cacioppo, indicates that chronic loneliness can have a serious effect on important biological functions, increasing the risk of infections, heart disease and depression.

Shared housing is an ideal way to combat social isolation. Not only does it promote psychological well being, it also promotes both physical and mental health in the following ways:

* Shared housing lessens psychological stress: An inability to meet the rising cost of rent, taxes, utilities or maintenance of a house on one’s own leads to stress which, when constant, can causes levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) to spike. Cortisol triggers the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response, flooding the body with glucose to supply energy to the larger muscles. It also inhibits the production of insulin and narrows the arteries, forcing the heart to pump harder and at an accelerated rate. Stress has serious physical consequences, including an elevated risk of blood sugar imbalance and diabetes, obesity (one of the biggest risks for metabolic syndrome and, therefore, heart disease), immune system suppression and gastro-intestinal problems. Long-term stress has also been linked to depression, dementia, inflammatory diseases, premature aging and thyroid disorders.

* Shared housing promotes improved nutrition: When living alone, people are tempted to forego cooking in favour of a quick sandwich or snack, often made with processed, high-salt and –sugar content foods. A recent study conducted by Statistics Canada indicates that older people who live alone are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition, since they eat alone and have less help with shopping and cooking. If they are depressed or disabled, the toll on their nutritional intake can be even more cumbersome. By sharing a home, housemates are encouraged to cook, enjoy a meal and even shop together. Moreover, especially in inter-generational shared houses, housemates can share important nutritional knowledge; members of younger generations, for instance, can share new findings on nutrition that were unheard of in decades past. For instance, phytonutrients, flavonoids and biophoton energy are exciting new terms in the books of current day health buffs that those who were born in the early part of the 20th century may not have heard of.

One need only read up on the validity of the 20th century food pyramid to see how nutritional recommendations have changed. Today, doctors, scientists and health gurus alike are promulgating the benefits of a low-starch, low-sugar diet; in the past, cereals and breads were considered the vital pillar on which our daily nutritional rested. Shared housing can even lend itself to nutritional experimentation: people can be inspired and motivated by the results obtained by their housemates through adopting healthy practices like including raw foods in their daily diets, enjoying one meat-free day or week and even enjoying an occasional fruit detox day!

* Shared Housing Gets People Moving: It is much easier to sit at home and mope when one has nothing to share or explain to anyone; when we share our living space, the idea of going for a brisk walk by the sea, joining a dance class or even working out daily at a gym, is far more appealing. Exercise is inexorably tied to good nutrition, since both are necessary to raise one’s fitness level. Even dancing intensely for half an hour can make you feel faint if you haven’t eaten a healthy meal beforehand, and indeed, tiredness is often the result of electrolyte imbalance. Electrolytes are important minerals (including sodium, potassium and calcium), which are responsible for a number of important functions in the body, including keeping your body hydrated and promoting proper nerve and muscle function. Keeping a healthy balance involves habits as simple as consuming electrolyte-rich foods (like fruits, vegetables and wild salmon), all of which you can enjoy during a wonderful meal full of conversation and laughter with your housemates.

* Shared housing guarantees prompt attention in the case of emergencies: Every human being, young or old, can suffer from an accident and need emergency care; sadly, isolation or a lack of family support means that many people have nobody to call in the face of such situations. Worse yet, if there has been a loss of consciousness, it could be several hours or days, before someone arrives to rescue a victim. One of the most amazing things about sharing a house is knowing that in medical emergencies, a housemate is likely to either be at home or to arrive soon enough to make an important difference in receiving timely care. It also helps to know that when our spirits are down (which can sometimes amount to an emergency in itself), we can always count on our housemates to cheer us up.

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