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Social Isolation: Impacting Physical Health

July 29, 2019

The negative impact social isolation can have on a person’s health is gaining traction in the medical literature. And a recent study from BlueShield of Northeastern New York confirms not only its prevalence but impact in our local community.

Using social determinants of health data, such as zip code level census data, we identified a subset of our membership as being at risk for social isolation. We then used our own claims data to assess what impact this risk score had on disease prevalence.

Social isolation has been shown to raise levels of stress hormones and inflammation, contributing to diseases such as depression, dementia, and even arthritis and heart disease. Our claims data demonstrated a correlation with these diseases as well. But we also found increased incidence of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and most surprisingly, malignant neoplasm.

While research is ongoing, one thing is certain – addressing loneliness and encouraging social connection in patients is good preventive medicine. Here are some common interventions and community resources to assist patients dealing with social isolation.

social isolations stats

Common Interventions

  • Counseling and coaching – It is beneficial for socially isolated people to connect with others by redirecting from negative social perceptions, emotions and behaviors
  • Encouraging affiliation with social groups – A sense of belonging with sports, religious, volunteer and other social groups has been shown to be key for well-being
  • Home-based treatment – Well-qualified and monitored health care aides at home are likely to make a difference, especially for older residents with limited health care and social services
  • Intervention through technology – Contacts through telephone, email and social media are better than nothing, though in-person visits and contacts are proven to be better in reducing depression and feelings of loneliness
  • Pets – Pets, especially dogs and cats, are associated with health benefits and reduced mortality

Resources Available

As we more fully understand the impact, we are looking at programs we can support to encourage meaningful social connection. We currently offer Silver Sneakers® for Medicare Advantage members (featured in this edition of the Blue Bulletin).  Senior centers, dance classes and fitness-related programs generally encourage healthy social interaction. The Institute on Aging’s 24-hour toll-free Friendship Line (800-971-0016) offers emotional support calls with trained volunteers who make ongoing outreach calls to lonely seniors.

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