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San Mateo County to commit $1 million to fight loneliness

San Mateo County will commit to at least $1 million to combat an epidemic of loneliness, Supervisor David Canepa said during a forum Wednesday on the topic in Redwood City.

It’s the first financial commitment by a county official to address loneliness as a public health issue, two months after the Board of Supervisors declared it a public health emergency.

“I am here to announce that San Mateo County has committed $1 million to Peninsula Family Service. Ultimately, we can’t let our nonprofits do the work if we don’t invest in nonprofits,” Canepa said at the event hosted by Peninsula Family Service, an organization non-profit based in the city of San Mateo. “We are committed to doing that.”

Canepa told this news agency on the sidelines of the Peninsula Family Service forum “Overcoming the Loneliness Epidemic: A Community Challenge” that the budget will be proposed and voted on by the board of directors sometime in September.

He said it would be a “one-time allocation” that would come from the county budget or Measure K, a local sales tax fund that could be used to fund local social services.

Heather Cleary, CEO of Peninsula Family Service, said if the funds are approved, they will use it to expand existing projects that help improve social connections between older people and young people.

“With the increase in resources allocated, we are really tackling awareness in this county, to send the message to everyone that loneliness is normal,” Cleary said. “There are ways to increase community belonging. We have a variety of tools at Peninsula Family Service to help you.

Peninsula Family Service offers programs to help seniors stay socially connected, such as affordable transportation, peer counseling, a senior activity center and a technology training program.

For younger children, the nonprofit offers an early learning program that provides “nutritious meals, high-quality curriculum, and interventions for children who have experienced trauma.”

During the forum, public health experts praised the county for recognizing social isolation and loneliness as a health risk.

“We need to remember that parts of loneliness are an integral part of the human condition. But when it becomes severe and long-lasting, it’s absolutely a health issue,” said Carla Perisinotto, a professor of geriatric medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who has conducted extensive research on the impacts of loneliness on health.

While the medical community has not yet widely understood that social isolation and loneliness are health problems, Perissinotto said science is catching up.

“I think it’s starting to be recognized, but I think our medical models haven’t focused on the social determinants of health, and loneliness is a social determinant of health,” she said. “San Mateo took the lead.”

A county survey found that about 45 percent of residents reported difficulties with social isolation and loneliness, prompting Canepa to write the resolution.

A report by US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy compared the physical effects of loneliness to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

The report also found that poor or insufficient social connection increases the risk of heart disease by 29%, stroke by 32% and increases the likelihood of developing dementia by 50%. Murthy also pointed out that lack of social connection increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%.

After San Mateo County’s resolution, Murthy said he was “grateful” for the local government’s initiative to recognize loneliness as a health emergency.

In the United States, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 2023, loneliness and social isolation cost the economy at least $406 billion annually, on top of the $6.7 billion in costs of Medicare among the elderly.

“We have to show the same seriousness (as the surgeon general),” Canepa said. “We will work with academic institutions, Peninsula Family Service and the county health department, and formulate a program that will be the first and most innovative in the country.”

California Daily Newspapers

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