Loneliness damages the health of our seniors: It can & should be treated

By Dr. Zubin Eapen

Loneliness, that feeling of disconnect from society, community and family, pervades the lives of more than 40 percent of seniors, at least according to one recent University of California, San Francisco study. This feeling impacts not just emotional, but also physical health, at a tremendous toll on individual patients, families, and society.
Loneliness is a complex problem, rarely diagnosed or even discussed. At CareMore we’re making an effort to find ways to meet the needs of patients who experience loneliness.  As a health delivery system that focuses on better managing the needs of seniors and others with complex medical problems, we are committed to go beyond traditional care solutions. [But there’s no reason our approach has to be exclusive.]
Research shows that a lack of social connection and the feeling of loneliness and isolation is as damaging to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is also a risk factor for many other conditions, including cognitive decline, the potential progression of Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and obesity.  It even impacts the common cold: A recent study in Health Psychology showed people who were lonely complained of 38.5 percent more severe symptoms than those who were identified as less lonely. 
The human toll is more important, but loneliness can also be expensive. An AARP study showed those who are very socially isolated influence about $130 per month more in Medicare spending than their non- or less-isolated counterparts.
At CareMore, we believe we should be asking the types of questions that can help spot a lonely patient, and determine what the medical, psychological and personal health implications. Listening and understanding a patient’s needs—as well as paying close attention for signs of social isolation— is at the core of providing the best care.
The warning signs could be very obvious if we have real conversations with our patients in order to help them. For example, talking with a patient who has lost his or her spouse could be a step towards avoiding the development of full-blown depression, getting resources and treatment to them at just the right time.
At CareMore, we’ve just launched the Togetherness Program, a first-of-its-kind clinical program designed to ensure loneliness is addressed in the clinical setting. Led by the industry's first Chief Togetherness Officer, Robin Caruso, our program will focus initially on regular phone conversations with patients that we have identified as at-risk for loneliness. The purpose of these calls is to build connections, provide consistent and positive engagement and support a patient’s individual health care needs.
These calls can give us information that helps us address loneliness from a holistic and direct patient care standpoint—whether that is connecting patients with community-based social programs operated out of our Care Centers and our Nifty After Fifty fitness gyms; providing hearing aid support, since it may be hearing loss that’s driving the feeling of isolation; or something entirely different. Loneliness has many causes—and our job is to identify modifiable risk factors and address them.
Just the simple phone call often yields a rewarding shift in tone of voice. Our goals are even bigger than that, as rewarding as it is, though. We want to see improved quality of life and clinical outcomes (such as increased socialization and decreased depression), as well as reduced hospital admission rates.
While that recent University of California, San Francisco study I mentioned earlier found that people 60 years and older who reported feeling lonely faced a 45 percent increased risk of mortality, we believe there’s promise that real results can happen.
In addition to the clinical benefit, programs like this are responding to demands from seniors who want to receive more than just medicine from their health care providers. According to a recent survey we conducted of seniors nationwide, 27 percent of respondents said they would like their provider to offer programs to connect them to people or activities in their community to help them stay healthy.
If health care professionals just keep their eyes and ears open, we can help make sure seniors who may suffer from loneliness can get the attention and care they need. This is a solvable problem, and addressing it can make a world of difference for the health of millions of patients.

Dr. Zubin Eapen is chief medical officer of CareMore.