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The Major Health Issue Affecting Seniors

Isolation and loneliness have serious consequences

The Major Health Issue Impacting Seniors

Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty Images

Loneliness in older adults may lead to serious health problems.

Isolation and loneliness among seniors has significant health consequences, and a health care subsidiary of insurance giant Anthem has launched an initiative designed to treat isolation as a health issue.

CareMore, a health care plan and delivery system that operates in seven states, announced the program earlier this month. Treatment of isolation will be individually tailored to patients, company officials said.

"By viewing loneliness as we would any other chronic condition or disease, it becomes possible to develop solutions and prescribe treatment strategies to effectively address this ailment and improve patient lives across the country,” Zubin J. Eapen, CareMore’s chief medical officer, said in a statement.

A 2012 analysis by the University of California, San Francisco, found that loneliness among older adults may be a predictor of serious health problems or death. It found that 43 percent of adults older than 65 felt lonely. And a 2015 study by Brigham Young University researchers found that simply feeling lonely increases the risk of mortality by 26 percent.

CareMore has identified 1,100 of its Medicare Advantage patients in four states that will be the focus of the clinical program. The company has named Robin Caruso, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with dementia and end-of-life care, as its chief togetherness officer.

“Our initial efforts are focused on building personal connections with at-risk patients through consistent and positive engagement. We will tailor and expand our offerings based on what we learn patients need the most,” Caruso said.

A recent CareMore survey of older adults indicated about 20 percent feel isolated from their friends and family, and 27 percent would like their health care provider to offer programs designed to connect them with people or activities in their community, the provider said.

The move is part of a larger overall trend to treat loneliness similar to a chronic illness. Psychology Today noted in 2015 that loneliness can lead to or exacerbate depression, social anxiety, addiction or hoarding. And a 2016 article in Fortune magazine called chronic loneliness “a modern-day epidemic.”

“Loneliness is not designed to be chronic; instead, it’s very much like physical pain or hunger,” John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago Center for Cognitive & Social Neuroscience, told Fortune. “It’s an aversive cue that alerts you to pay attention.”

CareMore provides enrollee care for Medicaid and Medicare Advantage plans in Arizona, California, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada, Tennessee and Virginia. Screening for loneliness risk factors “will become a standard practice for all of our senior patients,” Caruso said.