Social Isolation and Loneliness as Social Determinants of Health in Urban Settings

Gelilah Yohannes
Gelilah Yohannes ’17, Project 55 Fellow at NY Academy of Medicine

Gelilah Yohannes ’17 is from Omaha, NE. At Princeton, she graduated with a B.A. in Molecular Biology and hopes to pursue a career in medicine. She has a special interest in age-related diseases and conducted her senior thesis independent work investigating caloric restriction as an intervention for aging. During her four years, she volunteered with the Ascend Hospice program, which opened her eyes to the importance of end-of-life care. She is very excited to work with New York Academy of Medicine’s Age-Friendly initiative and to help ameliorate the isolation of seniors in NYC. Apart from academics, Gelilah also helped in founding Princeton Ethiopian and Eritrean Students Association (PEESA) and served extensively as a leader in faith groups, Princeton Faith in Action and Worship House, as a vocalist and pianist.

My time at the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) this past year has given me a deeper understanding of the social determinants of health through experiences both on and off the field. As a Junior Policy Associate in the Healthy Aging department, my position was primarily focused on Age-friendly NYC, an initiative that aims at addressing public health issues related to older adults.

One such issue that I had personal interest in was the effect of social isolation on health. Although loneliness poses health risks for all ages, the segment of the population that is primarily susceptible to both the psychological and physical health risks associated are older adults. During my first months at NYAM, I attended a senior roundtable discussion on loneliness at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House. There, I was able to listen to NYC seniors, many of whom lived alone, who shared their difficulties making friends and feeling isolated.

Through these conversations, I learned that the extent to which loneliness contributes to a healthy life is largely understated.

There are more obvious examples regarding its physical impacts on health, such as a situation where a caregiver is not present and a senior falls at home. However, there are also more long-term influences on health such as increased risk factors for cognitive decline, higher rates of morbidity, mortality, infection, and depression (Cornwell et al, 2009). Being present to observe and listen to the personal stories of NYC seniors opened my eyes to see social isolation as a critical public health problem.

For me, moving from my Midwestern hometown to NYC was no easy transition. Yet, through Princeton Project 55, I was able to meet two older adults who greatly provided me a sense of support and community during my time in New York City. I would specifically like to thank Judy Hole and Dr. Robert Ruben for their time spent with me showcasing New York City’s artistic and cultural treasures. Thank you for your hospitality and for the rich conversations we shared together. It helped a big city seem a just little less isolating.

Gelilah photo 2
Gelilah (left) with Project 55 mentor Dr. Robert Ruben ’55 (right)
Gelila photo 1
Gelilah with Judy Hole s’55 at the American Ballet Theatre

CORNWELL, E. Y., & WAITE, L. J. (2009). Social Disconnectedness, Perceived Isolation, and Health among Older Adults. Journal of Health and Social Behavior50(1), 31–48.


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