ASHEVILLE, NC – October 10, 2023 – On May 2nd, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory report that diagnosed a loneliness epidemic in America and included a roadmap for prevention. Relationships suffered from a shift in communication from person-to-person interaction to communication via technology-related devices. The coronavirus pandemic made it worse by separating people from friends, relatives, organizations, classmates and work associates. According to the CDC, one-half of American adults have experienced loneliness.
Social connectivity is fundamental to health and well-being. It includes having relationships with others and being involved in the community. Poor social connectivity can affect our mental, physical and societal health. Research indicates that loneliness is linked to many medical problems including early mortality, stroke, heart disease, dementia, and depression while increasing the risk of getting one of these illnesses between 30-100%. It contributes to about a billion-dollar health care cost. For these reasons, the Surgeon General feels that loneliness is as serious a public health problem as smoking and obesity.
Dr. Murthy has proposed a 6-point plan to build social connection and reduce loneliness:
- Develop community social infrastructure and access, like organizations and groups to join, transportation, and public spaces for people to congregate
- Create public policies that promote equitable social connection
- Sensitize public health & health care systems to this growing epidemic
- Reform digital communication systems. Some examples are: social media companies need to develop methods to reduce children’s time on social media to acceptable levels; people need to spend less time on the phone, social media, and working remote and spend more time at the office with others.
- Have ongoing evaluations of the effect of interventions upon preventing loneliness
- Create a culture of connectivity
So how does this play out in Buncombe County? Our residents are aging and many retirees are moving to the mountains to enjoy the outdoors and Asheville’s fine dining and music scene. We have government and local non-profit organizations that understand the aging community of WNC and how it is important to promote services and partnerships that foster independence and dignity. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UNC Asheville is an international movement to promote lifelong learning, community leadership, and participation for people. Most of its members are over 55 years old. A popular fall course at OLLI is Leadership Asheville Seniors (LAS) that provides a comprehensive view of Asheville and Buncombe County.
On October 3rd, LAS held their Health Day at the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC). The 35 attendees had 7 sessions about topics are varied as navigating the healthcare maze, the opioid epidemic, and what the Department of Public Health does. A highlight of the day was a symposium discussing the recent Surgeon General Advisory Report on the loneliness epidemic with an emphasis on seniors.
The LAS attendees came up with 8 interventions to reduce social isolation for seniors in Buncombe County. They were assisted by Elizabeth Williams, the Executive Director of Mountain Care Adult Day and the Hendersonville Council on Aging, and Billie Breeden, the age-friendly Coordinator for Buncombe County Health and Human Services in the Division of Aging and Adult Services.
Here are the 8 interventions:
- Increase funding for the Buncombe County Senior Center
- Reduce the labor shortage of caregivers to older adults
- Schedule more meet-ups
- Promote OLLI
- Promote sports and activities, like pickleball
- Create a locator to help people find others with similar interests
- Create a “Buddy-up” system to facilitate outreach
- Improve communication to promote local activity awareness, like the Asheville Ideas Fest
The Surgeon General Report was written to raise awareness about this overlooked but very significant health problem. Dr. Murthy says that loneliness is a feeling like hunger and thirst. People have always relied on each other for survival. If a person feels the ‘loneliness’ signal, then he/she engages in social activity. However, if the signal persists without anything being done to take care of the need for social connection, then health problems can occur. The Attorney General says that “there is really no substitution for interpersonal interaction.” The OLLI seniors agree and have come up with many innovative approaches to benefit Buncombe County.
Listen to the full report below:
Contact: Dr. Dick Needleman, Health reporter, 103.3 AshevilleFM, firstname.lastname@example.org