Dr. Ruth Named NY’s First Ambassador to Loneliness
ALBANY, N.Y. — Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the iconic media personality who rocketed to fame as the nation’s sex therapist in the 1980s, now has a new title to add to her resume: She’s now New York’s — and by extension, the United States’ — first ambassador to Loneliness.
Not surprisingly, the idea for the job came from the 95-year-old therapist herself, inspired by the isolation she felt during the COVID-19 pandemic.
An almost hyper-energetic woman who rarely ate at home, like the rest of us, Westheimer suddenly found herself with little more than four walls to look at and the breathless sound of solitude to keep her company between visits from her daughter, once the pandemic became a monthslong siege.
“As New York works to fight the loneliness epidemic, some help from honorary Ambassador Ruth Westheimer may be just what the doctor ordered,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said as she bestowed the honorary title on Westheimer last week.
“Dr. Ruth Westheimer has offered her services to help older adults and all New Yorkers cope with the loneliness epidemic and I will be appointing her to serve as the nation’s first state-level honorary ambassador to Loneliness,” Hochul said.
“Studies show individuals experiencing loneliness had a 32% higher risk of dying early and we need leaders like Dr. Ruth to help address this critical component of our mental health crisis,” she added.
In accepting the title, Westheimer vowed to help New Yorkers of all ages address the growing issue of loneliness, which has been associated with everything from anxiety and depression to cardiovascular ailments, and the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
In an advisory released in May, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy referred to what he called the “epidemic of loneliness” as an “underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health.
“Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight — one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled and more productive lives,” Murthy wrote.
“Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity and substance use disorders. Together, we can build a country that’s healthier, more resilient, less lonely and more connected,” he said.
The advisory went on to note that physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.
Additionally, lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60%, the advisory said.
Loneliness is defined as the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact, while social isolation refers to a lack of social connections.
A recent study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, entitled, the “The Health and Medical Dimensions of Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults,” found that social isolation (the objective state of having few social relationships or infrequent social contact with others) and loneliness (a subjective feeling of being isolated) are public health risks that affect a significant portion of the older adult population.
More than a third of adults 45 or older experience loneliness, with nearly a quarter of adults 65 or older considered socially isolated, the study said.
Under Hochul, New York state is taking steps to develop age-friendly communities and build a more robust system of mental health care.
Last year, she signed an executive order to create the state’s first-ever Master Plan for Aging to ensure older New Yorkers can live healthy, fulfilling lives while aging with dignity and independence.
New York’s Office for the Aging is now working with the state Department of Health to develop this comprehensive plan, which will recommend age-friendly policies to influence community development, transportation and other supports needed to allow all New Yorkers to participate socially as they age.
Meanwhile, the state Office of Mental Health is now implementing Hochul’s $1 billion plan to build out New York’s continuum of mental health care, which was adopted in May as part of the FY 2024 state budget.
Part of this multiyear plan includes investing $60 million in capital and $121.6 million operating funding to dramatically expand outpatient services, which can provide a stigma-free environment to help New Yorkers experiencing mental health issues like anxiety or depression.
Of her new role, Westheimer said in a press release that she was “deeply honored” by her appointment.
“I promised the governor that I will work night and day to help New Yorkers feel less lonely,” she said.