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Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park
Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park: A nice place to be lonely.

On my 25th birthday, way back in August of 1976, I boarded a train in Minneapolis headed for Glacier National Park in far western Montana. My only companions were a borrowed backpack, a new sleeping bag and tent, a hastily assembled portable pantry, and The Complete Walker, Colin Fletcher’s ideological guide to hiking, loaned to me by a reluctant girlfriend who backed out on the trip a few days prior.

It wasn’t a bad time to go tromping about the wilderness on my own. I was newly divorced, splendidly introspective, and eager to test my resolve amongst the grizzlies and glaciers in one of the most pristine destinations in the lower 48. I still have the journal I kept during the trip, a 10-day chronicle of raw emotions, physical ailments (bad knees, cold coming on), and daily trials (broken backpack, 3 a.m. tent relocation by park ranger). But there’s surprisingly little in there about loneliness.

Here I was, a thousand miles or more away from home, trekking across the Continental Divide all by myself, and it seldom occurred to me that I was missing human companionship. Now, that might’ve been due to the nature of the trip: Hiking from West Glacier to East Glacier in a specified period of time creates a certain deadline-driven imperative that didn’t leave much room for sentiment. A round-trip train ticket only works if you arrive in time to board the train. But this was something like a rite of passage to me, as well, and as such I think I was too caught up in the experience to spend much time thinking about who I was leaving behind.

Almost 40 years later, I still don’t think much about the value of social interaction (my favorite Saturday night activity is canceling planned social obligations), but a new study from the University of Chicago suggests that I probably should pay more attention to this part of my life as I get older, because loneliness can slice years off of your lifespan.

According to research by John Cacioppo, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, extreme loneliness can increase an older person’s chances of premature death by 14 percent — twice the impact that obesity, for examply, has on one’s longevity.

Feeling isolated from others can disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, suppress your immune system, and lead to depression. And among geezers who leave the social climate of the workforce and retire to sunnier, albeit foreign, shores, this can be a real problem. “Retiring to Florida to live in a warmer climate among strangers isn’t necessarily a good idea if it means you are disconnected from the people who mean the most to you,” Cacioppo said in a statement released by the university.

As I reported last month from one of those foreign ports, my “social portfolio” at this point in my life is pretty strong. But friends can have a tendency to fall away and activities that bring disparate groups of people together for various forms of camaraderie inevitably dissipate as we age — how many of my basketball buddies will still be showing up on Monday nights when they hit their 70s? So I know I can’t give into my natural instincts and withdraw from people and activities as I get older.

In fact, just this afternoon, I was telling my tennis buddy, The Baseline Machine, that my basketball-playing days may be numbered and that we need to start thinking about getting together more frequently this spring. I might even invest in a new racket and take lessons as a nod to the reality that tennis may be a better long-term sport — and reason to keep in touch with TBM — than basketball.

She said she’d try to fit me into her busy schedule, which I took to mean she was a little worried about my sudden dedication to improving my game. But if I know TBM, she’ll rise to the challenge and, on the tennis court at least, I’ll never be lonely.

Thoughts to share?

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