TRENTON — State lawmakers are on the verge of creating a state task force to study social isolation, in which individuals have little or no contact with other people, which can negatively affect both physical and psychological health.

The New Jersey Task Force to Prevent Loneliness and Social Isolation, which is likely to get final legislative approval Monday, would have nine months to complete a report on social isolation in vulnerable populations and resources available to combat it.

The report would focus on people age 65 or older, veterans and individuals with disabilities or mental illness. The passage of S3692/A5314 is a priority of groups including AARP New Jersey.

“Regardless of a person’s age, a lack of meaningful contact with others is often as debilitating as a health condition, as having a chronic illness or disease,” said Stephanie Hunsinger, state director for AARP New Jersey

Hunsinger said a study by Brigham Young University researchers “found that prolonged social isolation is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is more harmful than obesity.”

“Social isolation can be linked to high blood pressure, greater susceptibility to the flu and other infectious diseases and early onset of dementia,” she said.

The United Health Foundation ranks New Jersey in the middle of the pack for risk of social isolation, 28th in 2018. It has a relatively low share of people with disabilities, compared with other states, but higher-than-average shares of people who never married or have difficulty with independent living.

“The good news is social isolation can be combatted by the availability of accessible, affordable and fun social activities,” Hunsinger said.

“In short, there’s not a lot that we know about social isolation,” said Brendon Blake, associate state director of advocacy for AARP New Jersey. “There hasn’t been a lot of research done on it. So we believe this legislation would push us in the right direction.”

The bill was passed 74-0 by the Assembly last June but has been amended as it wound through the Senate, so it will require approval from both houses by Monday to reach Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk. It is listed for a likely vote on Monday.

Among the changes: The task force would complete a single report, rather than once every two years.

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Sen. Dick Codey, D-Essex, said social isolation “is a big problem in our society for a lot of reasons.” He said the United Kingdom has created an office to develop strategies to address loneliness and that in  Sweden, for the first time, more than half of households have just one person in them.

“Today in our society, membership in social organizations is way off. In addition to that, attendance and practicing of religion is way off,” Codey said. “The more and more these trends continue, the more and more isolated we get. As a result of that, the number of people getting depressed, having anxiety, continues to rise and rise and rise.”

“There is no easy solution,” he said. “But it is a huge problem.”

In New Jersey, according to Census Bureau estimates, 26% of occupied households have one person living there.


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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com