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Senate Committee examines impact of social isolation and loneliness, initiatives that build community

United States Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging respectively, held a hearing in Washington, DC, on April 27 titled, “Aging Without Community: the Consequences of Isolation and Loneliness.” The hearing, the first in a two-part series, also explored programs that reduce social isolation and loneliness as well as resources and support for older adults at risk.

Senator Collins referred to the severe consequences of isolation and loneliness: “negative health outcomes, higher healthcare costs, and even death. The root problem is one that we can solve by helping seniors keep connected with communities,” she said.

The health risks of social isolation and loneliness compare with smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed those associated with physical inactivity and obesity. According to researchers, prolonged isolation is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Isolation and loneliness are associated with higher rates of heart disease; weakened immune system; depression and anxiety; dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease; and nursing home admissions.

The US Census reported that 29% of Americans over age 65 live alone, including more than half of women over age 75. Other studies report that one in five older adults are isolated. While living alone does not necessarily mean that a person is lonely, it can be a risk factor for loneliness or isolation. Older adults with the highest level of loneliness were more than twice as likely to die within six years as those with the lowest level of loneliness.

The second committee hearing took place May 17. Titled “Aging with Community: Building Connections that Last a Lifetime,” this hearing examined age-friendly initiatives in rural and urban settings. The witnesses were four program directors, who described initiatives that focus on transportation, housing, social engagement, technology, outdoor space and buildings. They also discussed “informational campaigns and cultural efforts to create a positive experience for our aging population and individuals with disabilities.” Information about both hearings is available at www.aging.senate.gov/hearings.

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