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Health Effects of Social Isolation

Lisa Berkman on how isolation affects our aging society — and how to reduce it


In this set of videos, Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, discusses the health effects of social isolation. Her research shows that isolated people, especially older adults, have higher health risks. Mortality risk is about three times as high for isolated people — those who are not married, have few friends or relatives, or do not belong to a voluntary or religious organization — compared with those who have more sources of social contacts.

See also: 7 things to know about isolation.

Berkman says there are lots of possible solutions to isolation, but the two most important areas to reform are large pieces of our societal framework: housing and workplaces. She recommends designing housing with attention to what older people need; the result will be communities that benefit everyone. For example, including accessible sidewalks in urban design is good for older people, but it also makes it easier for many others to get around, including parents with strollers, kids on bicycles and the disabled.

Changing how work is organized will also be critical, especially when it comes to retirement and part-time work. She notes that the United States has few family-friendly work policies compared with other industrialized nations. Providing workers with more flexibility would help increase social connectedness.

The issue of isolation will become more urgent as American society gets older. Lower birth rates and longer life expectancies mean the United States will soon have more people over age 65 than under age 15. In order to remain successful, Berkman argues, society must plan for what older people will need.

Several organizations, including AARP, advocate for livable communities and flexible workplaces. However, AARP Foundation is the only organization taking a comprehensive look at isolation and how it affects an individual's entire well-being. We're pioneering research to help us understand how people 50-plus get onto a pathway to isolation — and how to help them get off that pathway. There are many causes — and the reasons that lead a 57-year-old to be isolated may be radically different from those of an 81-year-old. We need to get a better picture of those who are isolated and how they got there. AARP Foundation will use this research as a starting point, looking at all the ways we can strengthen or repair the broken connections that lead to isolation.

Also of interest: Why do some seniors feel isolated?


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Jo Ann Jenkins, AARP CEO

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