An increasing number of health care providers and health delivery systems are beginning to understand that loneliness is far more than a temporary feeling or theoretical idea, but rather, a condition with clear adverse effects on health. Physician and former US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, stated, “the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes, it was loneliness.” He went on to further explain that rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s and called the loneliness crisis a “growing epidemic.”
A study conducted by University of California, San Francisco, found that 43% of older adult participants reported feelings of loneliness. The study further indicated that people aged 60 years or older who reported struggling with loneliness faced a 22.8% increased risk of mortality compared with the 14.2% faced by participants who did not report being lonely. Furthermore, Murthy pointed out that, “loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”
Research conducted between Medicare and Medicaid patients served by CareMore Health, a subsidiary of Anthem, has emphasized the concept that loneliness can negatively impact health, as lonely patients are less likely to take their medications or attend their medical appointments. Such behaviors often result in chronic conditions going untreated or getting worse over time. In NEJM Catalyst, CareMore's President and CEO, Sachin Jain, said it plainly: “The problem of loneliness and social isolation is increasingly well-recognized as a societal ill, but maddeningly difficult to address. What can we do to address a problem that has roots that are not just economic, but cultural in nature?”
CareMore's "Togetherness" Program
In 2017, CareMore Health appointed a Chief Togetherness Officer, Robin Caruso, to administer efforts in addressing loneliness in the senior population that they treat. Caruso and CareMore Health have launched The Togetherness Program, which assessed their patient base of 80,000 and found 2,000 lonely seniors. More than 700 of the 2,000 enrolled in the Program and are engaged in an intervention that includes weekly phone calls, home visits, personal encouragement, and connection-to-community focused programs.
CareMore’s Chief Medical Officer, Zubin J. Eapen, said in a statement, “By viewing loneliness as we would any other chronic disease, it becomes possible to develop solutions and prescribe treatment strategies to effectively address this ailment and improve patient’s lives across the country.” CareMore firmly believes, reinforced by their implementation of The Togetherness Program, that loneliness is a condition of one’s health, which can be diagnosed, treated, and prevented via community based interventions and close engagement with patients.