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COVID 19 - Isolation and Loneliness

13 October 2020
COVID 19 - Isolation and Loneliness

Over the last six months, our lives have undergone many changes due to the 2020 pandemic.  While I recognize the difficulty in managing such a crisis, I must confess I remain somewhat perplexed about the lack of conversation regarding the countermeasures deployed to slow its spread. I must admit it is above my pay grade to second guess or contradict the recommendations of the CDC, however, their suggestions or edicts do warrant a further discussion, specifically those strategies around social distancing.  These proposals do not come without their own inherit risks.

To fully understand the implications of how lifestyle impacts health, we have to go back again to the early 1960’s to the small town of Roseto Pennsylvania.  Researchers examining death certificates were surprised to find that this small community of Italian immigrants were half as likely as the rest of nation to suffer from conditions such as heart disease and strokes.

Since the 1950’s, the trend among researchers was to examine how an individual’s diet contributes to heart disease.  What they found in the small community of Roseto completely surprised them.  Instead of the low fat, low cholesterol diet that was being promoted as the “heart healthy” diet at the time, they found that residents of Roseto carried with them the old world traditions and ate a diet consisting largely of pasta, meatballs, salami and cheese. They also smoked cigars and drank wine “with seeming abandon”. 

Residents enjoyed a convivial atmosphere with unlocked doors and virtually no crime to speak of. Researchers concluded that the factor that had been protecting this community from the modern day scourge of heart disease was not attributed to their diet, but rather was due to their close-knit, low stress lifestyle. This became known as the Roseto Effect.  Unfortunately over the following decades, the community’s prevalence of heart disease began to resemble that of the national average as their old world ways began to die off.

Let’s compare 1960’s Roseto with today’s communities. Examining societal trends, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2018 45.1% of U.S. citizens over the age of 18 (roughly just over 112 million) are unmarried.  This trend coincides with the number of one person households roughly doubling in number since the 1960’s to its current rate of 28.4%.  Only in the last half century have we seen this mode of living become prominent, in fact, in the long arc of the human condition, living alone was a societal aberration.  Aristotle summed it up quite nicely 2,500 years ago when he surmised that “He that lives alone is either a beast or a God”. 

So what does this mean for first responders?  As recent lifestyle trends are further complicated by the “new normal” of social distancing, quarantines, and general lack of social opportunities, undoubtedly we will begin to see consequences of these measures on the well-being of not only our constituents, but perhaps fellow first responders as well.  

Studies now show the consequences of isolation and loneliness are linked to cardiovascular disease and early mortality.  In fact, poor social relationships are believed to be associated with a 29% increase in the risk of developing heart disease and a 32% increase in risk of stroke according to the CDC.  There is also a whopping 50% increased chance of dementia associated with social isolation. Even more alarming are the detrimental ramifications of isolation seen in our younger population.  A June survey from the Addiction Policy Forum indicated a 20% increase in substance abuse for teens adjusting to the pandemic and while the suicide data for young adults for 2020 is not available yet, it does not look good as some early estimates suggest an increase of 30-40%.

    It is a strange new world we are living in, learning to cope and adjust will have to be part of it as we continue to go forward.  Also, be aware that we as first responders are not immune to the above described conditions. We must first learn to take care of ourselves and co-workers so we can continue to take good care of the community.  Be well…and reach out to someone today.

bio photo

Lieutenant Michael "Sporty" Kilbane

Michael Kilbane is a retired officer from the Cleveland Fire Department having served for over 35 years.

In that time, he has spearheaded many efforts to advance the betterment of the division through wellness initiatives and grants. He has also authored a pamphlet on maintaining back strength and health for firefighters.  Mr. Kilbane’s education includes an undergraduate degree in both Philosophy and Natural Health, along with master’s level coursework in both Physiology and Philosophy.  He is also a member of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is recognized through that organization as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. As a trained massotherapist, Mr. Kilbane has also witnessed literally first hand the damage done to first responders by over straining in some of the most hostile work environments. His most recent focus is utilizing kettle bells for functional training and is the author of The Athletes Ultimate Guide to Kettlebell Training.

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