Loneliness may have the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous to health than obesity. Recent nationwide studies highlight the close relationship between social isolation and loneliness and serious health problems — memory loss, depression, self-neglect, changes in blood pressure, medication errors, decline in functional status, poor management of everyday living tasks — as well as greater mortality.
Social ties provide support during illness, encourage people to maintain better health habits, and have positive effects on the immune system. Isolation from others contributes heavily to illness burden and premature death in at-risk populations.
Importantly, a recent Pew Research Center study notes that social isolation and loneliness are already significant for the more than eight million vulnerable older adults across the nation.
Why is this especially significant for Philadelphia? The population here is aging rapidly. Eighteen percent (~217,577) of our adult residents are age 65 or above, and of these, 43% (~93,446) live alone, according to an analysis from the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. Without action, the consequences of social isolation and loneliness will escalate as Philadelphia ages.
Philadelphia can do much more to combat the loneliness and isolation that is especially acute among older adults. There are many examples in Europe and elsewhere that we could follow. For example, the British government recently appointed a Minister for Loneliness. On a smaller scale, the city of Porto in Portugal runs a home-matching program where students can obtain free housing with older adults who have the room and the older adults gain companionship.
One of the major health challenges facing us as a city is to develop equally innovative ways of combating the issue of loneliness. There are already solutions in this city. For instance, small, trusted nonprofits are playing a role. Here are three resources Philadelphians can access, and the types of clients they serve:
As the population ages, both families and community leaders need to do more to combat loneliness and social isolation. We need to watch out for our older family members and friends and hold the appropriate elected and appointed officials accountable for progress — or lack thereof — in supporting the vulnerable elderly.