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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Loneliness Could be making Denver sick. The cure is all around you

Last week, the president of Cigna Mountain States John Roble published an eye-opening opinion piece in The Colorado Sun, detailing the growing and significant health threat of loneliness, particularly here in the Denver area.

Loneliness, he said, “can affect both physical and mental well-being, and research shows that it has the same impact on death rates as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

David Norris

He quoted a Cigna member survey that found that 52 percent of people in the greater Denver area say they sometimes or always feel no one really knows them well. And that’s just Denver. Many areas of the country fare far worse.

Mr. Roble did  a commendable job laying out the problem, however, he did not offer a solution.

This is not his fault. Loneliness is an epidemic that is sweeping over this nation, causing an estimated $75 billion in increased healthcare expenses. When a healthcare issue of this magnitude strikes, the effect on healthcare industry can be overwhelming.

From academics to health plan administrators to physicians, everyone is looking aghast at the effects of loneliness. What they don’t realize is that unlike other staggering healthcare issues, the solution is simple, inexpensive and abundant.

The solution is you.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

You and your friends and your families and the activities that you enjoy doing together. Cycling with friends. Meeting weekly for card games. Book clubs. Knitting groups. Religious services. Softball leagues. RV groups.

Engaging in activities that exercise your brain and your muscles is fantastic. But it’s not enough to go to the gym or do some crossword puzzles. In order for those activities to significantly improve or maintain your health, they need to be done with others.

Mr. Robles and other healthcare experts understand this intuitively. In his opinion piece, he wrote, “The key to achieving good health is understanding the interconnectedness of our social, emotional and physical dimensions.”

So, what keeps healthcare experts from finding a solution? The intellectual hump that healthcare experts need to get over is thinking that solutions need to be expensive, complicated and medicinal. Can you imagine your doctor writing out a prescription to “Join a pickleball club?” But that is exactly the kind of medical advice that will make the difference between healthy aging and physical and cognitive decline.

Here in Colorado, we are witnessing exactly this correlation. Element3 Health, based in Denver, has been conducting our own surveys. The results point in a telling direction: Clubs keep people healthy by keeping them active — physically, mentally and socially.

Our members tell us that they dislike going to the gym, but they wouldn’t dream of missing their group hiking treks. Their sewing groups, bridge clubs and star-gazing organizations aren’t distractions from their lives, they tell us, they are the centerpieces of their lives.

These are healthy, active adults who are aging well. They feel seen and known. Their interactions have meaning, and their lives are lived fully.

The healthcare industry might be flummoxed by the epidemic of loneliness, but older adults don’t have to be. Long, healthy lives just might be a group walk, book club or pickleball game away.

David Norris the CEO of Element3 Health, a network that engages 50-plus adults around their passions to increase their physical, social and mental activity for healthy aging.