The US has a Loneliness Epidemic. Could AI Help us Reestablish Human Connection?

June 29, 2023

The public health emergency declared at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic ended just weeks ago, but the United States is grappling with another long overlooked issue that has far-reaching implications across society: the loneliness epidemic.

In a recent advisory, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy highlighted the alarming physical health consequences of loneliness. People who are lonely have a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, a 50% increased risk of dementia, and their overall risk of premature death climbs by more than 60%. In the midst of this, the US life expectancy rate is dropping for the first time ever.

Ironically, many of the measures put in place during the pandemic to protect the most vulnerable members of our society from Covid-19 also exacerbated loneliness and isolation among these individuals. Loneliness is estimated to have increased by 5% globally as a result of the pandemic. That perhaps small percentage translates to millions more individuals suffering, and an enormous strain on healthcare systems.

We need to act now, and doing so will require a combination of diverse approaches. The Surgeon General has developed a national framework to rebuild social connection and community in the United States. Recognizing the collaborative role we all must play in addressing this crisis, it provides resources targeting different members of society, from individuals, healthcare professionals, businesses and governments.

It is recommended that healthcare professionals not only acknowledge social connection as a health priority, but also assess social disconnection during healthcare interactions, and include assessment results in electronic health records. 

Additionally, there’s a strong correlation between loneliness and mental illness. According to a recent study, individuals who experience intense feelings of loneliness are 14 times more prone to develop depression. For health professionals, broaching loneliness will likely go hand-in-hand with tackling mental health conditions. At Kintsugi, we’re building AI-solutions to help healthcare payors and providers better integrate mental health prevention in its support for patients, ultimately enabling a paradigm shift in healthcare.

Breaking down stigmas

Adults over 65 are particularly at risk of the health risks of loneliness, with around one in four people in this age group considered to be socially isolated. Moreover, older adults are the least likely age group to seek mental health support. With Sonar Strategies, Kintsugi conducted a study with 2,218 participants over 65, and uncovered that nearly a third were depressed. This is nearly double the national reported average depression rate. More alarmingly, of those suffering from depression, 54% were not receiving any mental health support.

“I can’t remember the last time I tried anything new.  I’ve just kind of been stuck in a rut dealing with life’s problems.”

Survey respondent | Anonymized participant

If elderly people are unwilling or unable to seek care for loneliness and depression, it could worsen physical symptoms, which may in turn cause even further mental suffering. Many older adults struggle to determine if the pain they are experiencing is mental or physical, and some experience stigma when their physical health issues are dismissed as mere symptoms of depression.

Breaking down the stigmas surrounding mental health is a critical step towards fostering human connection and combating loneliness. Older adults often come from a generation where discussing mental health concerns remains taboo, hindering their ability to seek the support they need.

Our machine learning algorithm, Kintsugi Voice, offers a promising solution to overcome the barriers created by stigmas. The tool works by analyzing short clips of free-form speech for signs that a person may be suffering from depression or anxiety. The tool can be seamlessly integrated into primary care and telehealth consultations, alerting the provider when further psychological support may be necessary.

With the patient’s consent, it “listens between the lines” and flags possible mental health concerns even if the patient hasn’t spoken up about it, because it works on free-form speech in any language. With support from health practitioners, it can give people the freedom to pursue mental health care that they otherwise may have shied away from.

Leveraging AI to treat health more holistically

The health impacts of loneliness have been likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Doctors often provide patients with resources to help them quit smoking; similarly, loneliness prevention should be standard in primary care. The problem lies in the segmentation of physical and mental health within our current healthcare system, leading to a concerning outcome where primary care doctors miss over half of all depression cases. 

Fortunately, AI advancements could enable us to move towards a more holistic health model. In a recent case study, our algorithm identified +30% more depressed patients, and also stratified symptoms according to severity, helping provide the right level of care at the right time based on each patient's needs. This approach can both strengthen the outcomes of health visits and reduce costs.

The reality is, mental health should be integral in every primary care visit, but it’s not – and this is having a huge impact on patients’ overall health . Patients themselves have voiced the need for increased attention to their mental health status during primary care visits. Furthermore, around 50% of patients with a chronic health condition do not adhere to their medication plan, and addressing mental health is a crucial factor to promote better adherence.

Investing in healthy aging

Loneliness can exacerbate mental and physical health conditions among older adults. In 2020, one in six US Americans were over 65, or about 55.7 million residents. By 2040, this figure is expected to climb to more than 80.8 million people. Currently, nearly half of all of those who are 65 and older have arthritis, around a quarter have cancer, and a fifth have diabetes. The rate of depression is also two times higher in this population. 

Prioritizing mental health awareness, diagnosis and treatment options with older adults helps promote healthy aging. It can reduce aggravating factors. It means older adults are more likely to maintain their independence and lead fulfilling lives, thereby reducing the need for extensive care or hospitalization. 

It also has significant cost-saving implications. By investing in mental healthcare, the sector can potentially reduce the long-term costs associated with treating both physical and mental health conditions.

Healthcare systems and policymakers should allocate resources to support the mental wellbeing of older adults as a preventive measure, by tackling loneliness, and opening up avenues to identify less visible mental health concerns.

Loneliness has serious implications on people’s mental and physical health - and these can be especially concerning among older adults. By enabling healthcare professionals to more directly and easily address potential mental health conditions among patients, they can open up pathways to improving people’s quality of life before they experience greater suffering.

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