Honorary Title Bestowed on Iconic Talk Show Host to Raise Awareness; Advise New Yorkers on Steps to Help Address a Growing Issue Statewide
Social Isolation and Loneliness Associated with Multiple Physical and Mental Health Issues; Significantly Increases Risk of Premature Death
Governor Kathy Hochul today announced that she has appointed Dr. Ruth Westheimer as the nation’s first Ambassador to Loneliness. In accepting the honorary title, the iconic talk show host pledged to help New Yorkers of all ages address the growing issue of social isolation, which is associated with multiple physical and mental health issues, including cognitive decline, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disorders, weakened immunity, Alzheimer’s disease, and premature death.
“As New York works to fight the loneliness epidemic, some help from honorary Ambassador Ruth Westheimer may be just what the doctor ordered,” Governor Hochul said. “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. Studies show individuals experiencing loneliness had a 32 percent higher risk of dying early and we need leaders like Dr. Ruth to help address this critical component of our mental health crisis."
A survivor orphaned by the Holocaust, Westheimer rose to prominence as a sex therapist and syndicated talk show host on both radio and television during the 1980s and 1990s. Last year, the 95-year-old resident of the Bronx suggested the idea of becoming an ‘ambassador’ for the state to provide fellow New Yorkers with advice on how to address loneliness and isolation –especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer said, “Hallelujah! I got off the phone with Governor Hochul yesterday afternoon. She called to ask me to serve as the very first Honorary Ambassador to Loneliness in the nation. I am deeply honored and promised the Governor that I will work day and night to help New Yorkers feel less lonely!”
More than a third of adults 45 or older experience loneliness, with nearly a quarter of adults 65 or older considered socially isolated, a recent study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found. 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.
Social isolation significantly increased the risk of premature death from all causes, the study found, rivaling the risk posed by other detrimental health conditions or behaviors, including smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Social isolation has been associated with an approximately 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia, while poor social relationships– characterized by social isolation or loneliness– have been associated with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke.
Under Governor Hochul’s leadership, New York State is taking steps to develop age-friendly communities and build a more robust system of mental health care. Last year, Governor Hochul 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.
The New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA) 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. Last summer, the Master Plan for Aging’s council and advisory committee released a preliminary report, with the final report slated to be delivered by 2025.
The Office of Mental Health (OMH) is now implementing Governor Hochul’s landmark $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 multi-year 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.
The state is now working to triple the number of Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics, which serve New Yorkers experiencing mental health issues or substance use disorders regardless of where they reside or their ability to pay for these services. These clinics will be expanded from 13 to 39 by July 2025.
New York State Office for the Aging Director Greg Olsen said, "For decades, the public has turned to Dr. Ruth Westheimer as an authority with wide-reaching influence who spoke to us eloquently and candidly about issues that are fundamental to who we are and how we interact with one another in a complex world. I can think of no one better than Dr. Ruth Westheimer to connect with New Yorkers of all ages and help elevate the issue of social isolation, which is among our top public health challenges, albeit a hidden one. I applaud Governor Hochulfor this bold and historic appointment. I also look forward to working with Dr. Ruth Westheimer to raise awareness of initiatives already implemented at the New York State Office for the Aging to combat loneliness and isolation, building on these successes across all ages."
Office of Mental Health Commissioner Dr. Ann Sullivan said, “Loneliness and social isolation have long been linked to poor mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety, and has been associated with dementia in older adults. As an orphaned survivor of the Holocaust and with her international fame as a talk show host, the estimable Dr. Ruth Westheimer is very well suited to raise awareness of this issue and encourage people of all ages to address issues of isolation in their lives and among their families. We look forward to working with this national icon to help all New Yorkers seek and maintain healthy connections in their community throughout life and as they age.”
State Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said, “We know that social isolation and loneliness is detrimental to one’s mental health, in addition a lack of human connection can also significantly increase the risk of dementia, heart disease and stroke. I am encouraged to see that Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a person we have learned from for years on television and radio, has been appointed by Governor Hochul to help people cope with these feelings and to form new connections. We look forward to working with Dr. Ruth on this important endeavor and I thank Governor Hochul for her commitment to ensuring that all New Yorkers can live healthy and fulfilling lives, no matter their age.”