Rick Creech, who was born with cerebral palsy, testifying at Senate hearing on Thursday. (Photo: Senate Aging)

Loneliness is a major, growing threat to older Americans’ health and longevity.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology researcher at Brigham Young University, on Thursday told members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging that isolation is about as dangerous as obesity.

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Studies show that strong social connections can reduce the risk of early death by about 50%, Holt-Lunstad said at the hearing, which was held in Washington and streamed live on the web.

“The magnitude of effect of social connection mortality risk is comparable to, and, in many cases, exceeds that of other well-accepted risk factors,” Holt-Lunstad said.

In addition to being about as dangerous as obesity, isolation appears to be about as risky as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, Holt-Lunstad said. In the United States, that’s the equivalent of smoking three-quarters of a pack of cigarettes per day.

Isolation may affect more than 8 million older U.S. adults, and there are signs that social disconnection is increasing, Holt-Lunstad said. Average household size has decreased, and the average size of an American’s social network has dropped by one-third since 1985, she said.

The Senate Committee on Aging posted a video recording of the hearing on its website.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the chairman of the committee, said she organized the hearing because of concerns about proposed Trump administration cuts in funding for support programs for isolated older Americans.

“These cuts are penny wise and pound foolish,” Collins said.

Reducing funding for effective support programs could increase the number of older Americans who end up in the hospital, or in nursing homes, she said.

The witnesses were short on specific advice about what Congress, or private commercial organizations, can do to reduce isolation risk, other than by maintaining or increasing funding for existing programs that serve older Americans.

Leonard Kaye, the head of the Center on Aging at the University of Maine, said having law enforcement officers call homebound, isolated older Americans every day to check on their safety seems to help.

The witnesses had observations that could be of interest to financial professionals who are helping clients use tools such as disability insurance, annuities, life insurance riders, critical illness insurance and long-term care insurance to protect against catastrophic health risk.

Some of those clients may eventually need assistive technology to deal with the effects of accidents, strokes or neurological conditions that affect their ability to move.

One witness Rick Creech, an educational consultant at the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network, was born with cerebral palsy. He estimated the assistive technology systems he uses to get through the day cost a total of more than $200,000.

In Pennsylvania, even funding for the systems schools need to help students with disabilities is scarce, Creech said.

“We have constant waiting lists,” Creech said. “At the end of every year, there are requests that I have to cancel or delay until next school year because we don’t have enough money to meet the requests.”

— Read LGBT Seniors Facing Increasing Retirement Fears on ThinkAdvisor.