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A nurse practitioner’s Brief But Spectacular take on combating loneliness

Transcript

William Brangham: Laurie Theeke is a nurse practitioner who studies how loneliness can impacts our health. Here's her "Brief But Spectacular" take on combating loneliness.

Laurie Theeke: I grew up in a very small town in rural Maryland. I was a very young teen mother. So, I understood the loneliness of being a teenage mother. I understood the loneliness of my grandmother, potentially, who lived over 20 years as a widow.

And then, I understand children, particularly in foster care. I've adopted eight children from foster care, and I understood, when I met those children, how lonely they were. And so, it's just many things, and experiences in my life, that led me to sort of study how human beings meet their need for love and belonging, and strive to fit in, and avoid feeling lonely, really.

You know, there's about 50 years of literature on loneliness, and it goes back to about 1955, when we started to think that people who were lonely had poor psychological outcomes. And now, we've learned that loneliness is not only a predictor for things like anxiety and depression, but it also is a predictor for things like cardiovascular disease, potentially stroke, diabetes.

There's been multiple analyses of large data sets from multiple countries that have linked loneliness to functional decline and mortality in older adults. We also know that loneliness is linked to suicidal ideation and potentially suicidal attempts in younger populations.

You might suspect that people who are by themselves all the time are lonely, but that's not necessarily the case. You can be lonely in a crowd of people, and you can be not lonely when you're alone.

In some of my qualitative work, we discovered that there's a sense of shame associated with admitting that you're lonely. Loneliness isn't an approved diagnosis in the nursing diagnosis codes and medical diagnosis codes. So, we need to diagnose it and then develop treatment plans for it.

I think it's been a particularly challenging year for people when we think about loneliness and social isolation. I think this year has given people a chance to explore their creative side. And we know that creativity, and creative pursuits like music and art, help people to be less lonely.

If I had to give advice to people right now who are feeling lonely or who see others, they think are lonely, I would say that they should bring this up to their healthcare provider. They should definitely ask for help, and they should make an active plan to deal with it. It's not something that we should keep hidden any longer, and it's nothing to be ashamed of.

My name is Laurie Theeke, and this is my "Brief But Spectacular" take on loneliness.

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