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Triple-S Foundation to gauge prevalence of social isolation in Puerto Rico

Triple-S Foundation is funding the inclusion of a module on social isolation and loneliness in the Puerto Rico Health Department’s annual Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey to determine the distribution of behavior risk, chronic disease and health practices in the population aged 18 and older. 

This information will be critical to the business sector for two reasons: employee well-being and productivity, said Roberto García-Rodríguez, CEO of Triple-S.

“The importance of including a module on social isolation and loneliness in these two population studies is that it will give us a baseline across age groups, including those age groups participating in the labor force,” García-Rodríguez said. “A greater awareness of social isolation and loneliness, along with their causes and symptoms, will help employers develop appropriate programs to increase social connection in the workplace, reducing absenteeism and health care costs while improving productivity.”

“A recent report on the labor sector by the Foundation for Social Connection identifies higher costs to businesses because of increased health care costs, sick days and loss of productivity,” he said, adding that a “2020 white paper on the subject issued by Cigna estimates the cost of loneliness to of the national economy is $406 billion annually, that is $4,200 per employee.”

Triple-S Foundation is also including the module in Consulta Juvenil, a survey commissioned to the Universidad Central del Caribe that measures risky conduct among those in middle schools and high schools, starting at 11 years old.

“Our goal is to contribute to a better understanding of the health risks associated with social isolation and loneliness to the physical and mental health of our society. This knowledge can serve to promote collaboration from the different sectors – government, private sector, community-based organizations and nongovernmental organizations – in addressing the situation effectively,” García-Rodríguez said. 

García explained that Triple-S and the Triple-S Foundation have identified social isolation and loneliness as a critical concern due to the demographic changes taking place in Puerto Rico, which include significant out-migration, the aging of the population and the experiences with hurricanes María and Fiona nas well as seismic activity and the pandemic.

The initiative includes three strategic elements: awareness, measurement/research and action. 

“Social isolation and loneliness have a significant impact on physical and mental health. Today, we know that the impact of social isolation on life expectancy is like that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day and represents a greater risk than obesity and excess alcohol consumption,” said José Novoa, chief medical officer of Triple-S.

“We also know that a person with weak social ties has a 29% increased risk for cardiovascular events and has a greater risk of developing dementia,” he said.

Meanwhile, Melissa Marzán, chief epidemiologist officer of the Puerto Rico Health Department, said: “What is not defined is not measured. This survey will allow us to learn the level of communication within families, how do they feel about it, whether they have a support network, and if they participate in recreational activities, among other related issues. The data collected can be used to conduct analyses and identify priorities in planning services.”

“Investigations are the first step in creating public policy and specific action plans for regions, municipalities by age groups and gender,” said Marzán, adding that understanding the reality of social isolation allows “government entities such as the Department of Health, private companies, and community-based organizations to carry out interventions that are guided by the findings.”

Social isolation and loneliness are also being measured among the school population in public and private schools through Consulta Juvenil. Both surveys are to conclude this year and the data analysis and publication of findings are scheduled for 2024.

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

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