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The Health Care Crisis No One Is Talking About

Mar 4, 2020

There are certain issues that you’d expect to be top-of-mind for older Americans, whether it be Social Security, Medicare, or scams that target seniors. But as I traveled through my district this year and held workshops for seniors across Maryland, there was one topic that I was surprised came up again and again: loneliness.

The crisis of social isolation and loneliness currently affects almost half of our population, and seniors are front and center.

In 2018, a national poll revealed that nearly half of all Americans suffer from social isolation and chronic loneliness. That’s almost 164 million people – across all age groups and populations- suffering from an illness that is more deadly than smoking 15 cigarettes a day and costs the Medicare program alone over $6 billion per year.

Social isolation, defined as when a person lacks opportunity to develop social connections, and loneliness, defined as the feeling of being alone, both represent growing health concerns in the U.S. socially isolated or lonely person has an increased likelihood of negative health outcomes including much higher risks of major chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as severe mental health conditions such as anxiety, dementia and depression.

Studies even show that individuals who are isolated are 29 percent more likely to die than those that are not, and it is estimated that social isolation and loneliness can shorten a person’s life by 15 years.

Older adults are especially at risk. Research shows that loneliness is a predictor of functional decline and death in adults 60 years and older.

We can’t let our seniors live – or die – this way.

That’s why Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) and I introduced H.R. 4859, the bipartisan Protecting Older Americans from Social Isolation Act of 2019, in October of last year to protect older adults from the negative health outcomes caused by chronic loneliness.

The legislation will support screening services to prevent and detect social isolation before it’s too late and direct the assistant secretary on Aging to identify best practices for addressing the national health crisis. We also encourage innovation at the local level by allowing states to pursue grant funding for projects that target social isolation and loneliness among older individuals. We are pleased that the current bipartisan Older Americans Act Reauthorization (S. 3057) compromise includes much of our bill.

But there is much more work to be done. To help our socially isolated and lonely older adults we need to align our priorities on a national level and find a common vision.

The Coalition to End Social Isolation & Loneliness, for example, brings together a broad-based set of organizations to promote connectedness in our society, including health plans working with consumer groups, and innovators working alongside community-based organizations and mental health advocates. AARP has also brought attention to the issue, advocating on behalf of their tens of millions of members across the country as they “empower people to choose how they live as they age.”

Our legislation and the efforts of groups like the Coalition and AARP are first steps on a long road to impacting one of the greatest silent crises in American history. We urge you to join us – we can and must do more, together.

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