- Written by Barbara Bodzin, Executive Director
- Published: 01 November 2019
Since stepping down as Surgeon General last year, Vivek Murthy has turned his attention to what he considers to be America’s fastest-growing public health crisis: loneliness. Murthy found that loneliness is often in the background of clinical illness, contributing to disease and making it harder for patients to cope and heal. “Loneliness,” he wrote, “is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety.”
According to the National Institute on Aging, social isolation and loneliness are also linked to increased risk of high blood pressure, obesity, a weakened immune system, and even death. A related report found that social isolation or living alone can be more harmful to a person’s health than obesity.
More than a quarter of the U.S. population now lives alone.
More than a quarter of the U.S. population now lives alone. However, it is important to keep in mind there is not always a correlation between social isolation and loneliness. Many who live alone do not experience loneliness, and conversely, others experience loneliness despite being surrounded by family and friends.
The increase in loneliness and isolation is most acute among elders due to factors such as: loss of a spouse/partner, separation of friends and family, retirement, lack of transportation, and loss of mobility and other functionality. Though most striking within the older population, there is a loneliness epidemic occurring across the lifespan. Loss of face to face companionship is an intergenerational concern, with changes in behaviors significantly impacted by social media and technology. Despite social media providing an outlet for loneliness for some, online communications have accelerated a sense of loss of meaningful connections.
AARP has launched the Connect2Affect tool, an online assessment and portal to help elders determine how isolated they might be, and connect them with area resources. “If we think about our checklist of being healthy, it usually includes exercise and eating vegetables and not smoking,” says Kellie Payne, research and policy manager for England’s Campaign to End Loneliness. “We don’t think about our social connections as being just as vital as those things. If you have good contacts, the restorative effects can be just as strong as those other, more traditional methods of being healthy.”
Individuals are often ashamed about their feelings of loneliness and isolation. It is essential to destigmatize these feelings, and for us to begin these vital dialogues and look for better solutions. As social beings, we thrive on meaningful interactions.
Engaging in activities provides a sense of purpose and can have a positive impact on mood, cognitive functioning, and well-being. Access to activities is often a challenge, especially in our rural communities. Consider contacting LifePath to learn about transportation and companionship services available to reduce isolation. Reach out to family, or make an effort to meet new people by visiting a senior center, attending a local luncheon club or dining center, joining a gym, volunteering, adopting a pet, taking up new hobbies, or befriending neighbors. LifePath can offer an array of options to enhance connectedness. Call us at 413-773-5555, x1230 or 978-544-2259, x1230, or send an email.