More and more studies are uncovering the harmful effects of social isolation and loneliness on health. For instance, lonely people are more likely to die from heart disease and are more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, and suicide. Some researchers have even compared the health impact of loneliness to obesity or smoking.
While loneliness—a subjective feeling—and social isolation—an objective condition—differ in meaning, both are found to have significant negative effects on health.
While members of all generations can be lonely, older adults are at a greater risk. Some studies have found that Baby Boomers are the loneliest generation and cite living alone, impaired mobility, and shrinking social networks as reasons for the increased risk. Further, a 2017 study by the AARP Public Policy Institute, Stanford University, and Harvard University found that Medicare spends an estimated $6.7 billion more per year on older adults that are socially isolated.
To address this problem, cities can begin to utilize an aging lens to intentionally engage older adults. The World Health Organization includes strategies for increasing social participation, employment, and civic engagement among older adults in its Age-friendly Cities Guide. AARP also provides a toolkit for cities to engage older adults in the planning process to ensure communities are livable for people of all ages.
Loneliness isn’t just a cultural issue; it’s a public health issue. Cities that intentionally engage older adults—particularly those at greater risk of social isolation—may not completely solve the problem, but they can be part of the solution.