June 16, 2021
Loneliness can’t be diagnosed with a simple blood test or quick exam. Yet research shows that loneliness is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness can increase the risk of premature death, heart disease, dementia, mental health issues and health care costs, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. But little is known about best practices in addressing loneliness.
To address this increasingly critical public health issue, Ariadne Labs, a joint center for health systems innovation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has partnered with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (of NYC Health) to develop a public health approach to prevent and mitigate loneliness with a specific focus on vulnerable populations.
Beginning this spring, Ariadne Labs and the NYC Health Department will launch a project that integrates a public health campaign with an evaluation of current loneliness programming in NYC. Using Ariadne Labs’ approach to innovation, researchers will identify the most vulnerable populations and develop evidence for best practices on mitigating loneliness. The goal is the creation of a set of recommendations and resources to address loneliness.
“Loneliness is a public health threat exacerbated by the social isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said NYC Health Department Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi. “It cuts across all age groups and socio-economic status.”
According to a Kaiser Foundation Study in 2018, 22% of adults report being lonely often or always, showing how pervasive the problem was even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need to include loneliness as a factor in measuring social health, which ultimately affects a person’s overall wellbeing,” said Ariadne Labs Chief Medical Officer Evan M. Benjamin MD, MS, FACP.
“To delve into the critical aspects of loneliness, we will use the principles of the Ariadne Labs Arc, a tested research and innovation pathway that produces transformative, scalable solutions to solve some of health care’s biggest problems,” Dr. Benjamin said.
The first phase of this work will consist of research and literature reviews to provide guidance to the NYC Health Department on evidence-based best practices to address loneliness. Users of current NYC Health Department programs including community members, providers, staff and other stakeholders will be interviewed by Ariadne Labs researchers. To ensure equity in the research and design processes, researchers will reach out to organizations and communities that are traditionally underrepresented in research: Black and Latino communities, older adults, and low-income communities.
“By identifying the key factors underpinning the public health epidemic of loneliness, and creating more awareness of it, we will be able to begin to create a treatment plan for this condition,” Dr Benjamin said.