America is an aging nation. There are about 43 million people age 65 and older in our country today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2050, that number is expected to nearly double. The fastest growing age group is what’s called the “oldest old,” those 85 years old and older. Maine’s median age is the oldest in the country, and it’s rising faster than the national average.

Though we pride ourselves on our tight-knit communities where neighbors still care for one another, the numbers show a portion of our aging population is falling through the cracks. In fact, one out of every three senior citizens in our country wakes up every morning isolated or lonely. For that older American, the common cold is dangerous and a fall in their home could be deadly.

Recently, the Senate Aging Committee, which I chair, held a series of hearings to investigate social isolation and loneliness in seniors, starting with consequences and ending with cures. The consequences are severe. Dr. Len Kaye, director of the Center on Aging at the University of Maine testified, “Let there be no doubt, social isolation is a killer and more Americans are living in isolation than ever before.” Seniors who are isolated or lonely have a 45 percent greater risk of dying. They have higher rates of heart disease, and they are more likely to develop diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. They are more prone to live with depression and anxiety. I was astonished to learn that the health effects of prolonged isolation are comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

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