We have read the compelling research about the devastating impact that social isolation has on our health and the statistics are alarming especially for our older Americans.
In 2018 and 2019, we highlighted several health challenges caused by loneliness and how to prevent it. Some of the complications derived from loneliness and social isolation are heart disease, stoke, dementia and depression. It is very concerning that a study reported that loneliness increased the risk of death by 26%. With those numbers, it is time to move this issue to the forefront.
It is alarming to know, COVID-19 has kept our seniors indoors over the last several months and the long-term effects will be eye opening. Thankfully, the United States Senate took notice and recently held a Senate Aging Committee hearing titled “Combating Social Isolation and Loneliness During the COVID-19 Pandemic” to address social isolation problem among our older adult population. Maine's United States Senator Susan Collins, an outspoken advocate for senior citizens, told News Center Maine of her fears about older adults being socially isolated especially during COVID19. “If seniors are isolated for a long time and don't have human contact, they tend to develop serious health problems,” said Senator Collins.
Research shows prolonged social isolation and loneliness can have adverse health impacts comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. To put it in perspective, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's research shows cigarette smoking harms nearly every organ of the body, causes many diseases and reduces the overall health of smokers. It results in over 480,000 deaths annually. By simply quitting smoking, can add years to your life.
In 2018, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD said, “loneliness should be targeted in public health campaigns like those designed to combat smoking, boost immunizations and combat obesity”. If the experts are now comparing isolation and loneliness to smoking, it is time to take notice. Dr Murthy said in a Harvard Business review story, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes, it was loneliness.” With 47.9 million U.S. citizens, 65 and over and that number growing exponentially to 98.2 million by 2060, we should become more attuned to our older Americans feelings.
There is no question that COVID-19 has exacerbated the isolation crisis among our seniors. Dr. Carla Perissinotto, Associate Professor in the Division of Geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco told the Senate Aging Committee, “Loneliness and Isolation are a national and global public health problem whose widespread effects may be even more pressing now in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic,” according to McKnights Senior Living.
There is no silver bullet to address this loneliness and isolation crisis among our older adults although it will pay big dividends to address it. U.S. Senator Bob Casey said, “it is interaction with our loved ones that sustains all of us. Seniors are living and dying, often scared and alone, due to the virus.” With our population getting older, it is going to take a concerted effort by family and friends to keep in touch with our older adults.
Senator Collins has seen firsthand the struggles seniors are experiencing in Maine during COVID-19. It helps if seniors canreach out to family and friends if they are feeling sad, unhappy or withdrawn. A few of the solutions provided to address social isolation and loneliness include:
- Developing a more robust evidence base for the assessment, prevention and intervention for social isolation
- Improving awareness of the health and medical impacts of social isolation across the healthcare workforce and public
- Improving ongoing education and training about social isolation and loneliness
We must remember, is often hard for older adults to ask for help when they are feeling sad, bored and lonely, so we should take the initiative to stay close especially during this gruesome COVID-19 pandemic.