Loneliness as a Public Health Threat

I was surprised to learn this week that loneliness raises the risk of premature death by up to 50 percent-that makes loneliness a public health hazard on the scale of smoking and alcohol. Yet many medical and public health professionals haven't heard about how many risks it poses.

Loneliness means that a person has a small support network and minimal interpersonal contact, and it becomes more common with age.  When a person’s children move or a spouse dies many people find it harder to engage in social activities. Seniors in rural areas are particularly susceptible. Geographic isolation and lack of public transportation combine to keep them alone.

Lack of human contact has serious physiological consequences. Studies show that without human contact our risk of functional decline increases as does our risk of mobility loss. The risk of clinical dementia goes up by 64%.   These health problems further isolate those suffering from social isolation, threatening a vicious cycle of physical, emotional, and psychological decline.

Better support access to existing services is a good start as an intervention.  For example, programs like Meals on Wheels can identify isolated seniors and connect them with resources to reduce loneliness. Other places like churches and city senior centers also serve as important community connectors and potential evaluation and intervention points for lonesome people.

Medicare could prioritize coverage for programs like SilverSneakers which keeps seniors active and creates opportunities for social connections through group exercise.  The Welcome to Medicare and annual Medicare exams could provide opportunities for screening and interventions.  

Medicare Advantage plans could cover benefits to address social isolation.  With an ROI analysis, interventions to reduce isolation could reducing health care costs (the triple aim) while improving outcomes. Developing a reliable tool to screen seniors for social isolation would help as well.