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Healthy neighbors create a healthy society

by Karen Sapio, Pastor, Claremont Presbyterian Church

In 2018 Cigna, one of the country’s largest health insurance companies, conducted a study that revealed a growing epidemic threatening the health of the American people. This epidemic is related to high risk for heart disease, diabetes and obesity. It is correlated to increased rates of opioid addiction and alcoholism. 

Across the board, those impacted by this epidemic experience a shorter lifespan than the current average, and—for the first time in American history—a shorter lifespan than was the norm in the previous generation. 

Most tragic of all, this epidemic is hitting hardest among young adults in their mid- to late-20s. What is this epidemic sweeping through our population?

Loneliness.

In its research, Cigna conducted a survey of 20,000 adults. The survey consisted of self-reported responses to a series of 20 statements or questions. Analysts used the UCLA Loneliness Scale to calculate respondents’ loneliness scores, which range from 20 to 80. Those scoring 43 and above were considered lonely. The average loneliness score in America is 44, suggesting that “most Americans are considered lonely,” according to the report.

Adults born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s had loneliness scores of about 48 compared with about 39 for respondents ages 72 and older.  One aspect of loneliness, the study discovered, is that those feeling alone and disconnected frequently believe that they are unique in feeling this way.

Has the loneliness epidemic his Claremont? In a letter to the editor published April 28, Claremont High School teacher, debate coach and CFA president Dave Chamberlain noted that his colleagues at schools around our district report a spike in student anxiety and depression in recent years.

Those of us who lead faith communities find more and more senior citizens—especially those who cannot afford to move to well appointed retirement communities—experiencing greater degrees of social isolation. And in between these age groups, working-age adults are often over-extended and exhausted. How might this be impacting our common life and our capacity to work for the common good?

As a health insurance company, Cigna’s motivation for conducting this study was to determine what impact loneliness has on their plan members’ physical and mental health. That is, after all, what impacts the company’s bottom line. If lots of people are lonely, and loneliness is associated with a wide spectrum of physical and mental health challenges, that has all kinds of implications for a major health insurance company.

Others have taken note of this and similar studies and have seen a more pervasive problem. Loneliness not only impacts the health of individuals, it impacts the well being of societies. Democracy, for example, really only works well when people are vitally connected in their communities. As one writer has put it, our form of governance requires that people know each other, listen to each other and work together in an attempt to wrestle compromise out of conflict for the purpose of the public interest and cause of the common good. 

Lonely people, on the other hand, feel disconnected from their communities: powerless, isolated, alienated even.  The loneliness epidemic isn’t exactly the zombie apocalypse, but it could be eating away at our collective ability to collaborate, resolve conflicts, care for the vulnerable and strategize together to address complex problems. 

Psychologist Jacqueline Olds has suggested that there is a direct connection between the loneliness epidemic and bad public policy. Which brings up more questions to ponder: In whose interest is it for us to be increasingly lonely and isolated? Who benefits if we lose our capacity to connect and communicate and care for each other? Whose power is enhanced when we feel isolated and powerless?

So talk to your neighbors, join a choir, play on a softball team, take the bus, walk in the park, attend worship, sit on your front porch and wave to passersby...the society you save may be your own.