CAMDEN, NJ — Millennials and younger residents in South Jersey suffer from higher rates of social isolation than citizens aged 65 or older, which can lead to chronic health conditions that include obesity, heart disease, and asthma, Rutgers University–Camden researchers have found.

According to the new report, produced by the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers–Camden through use of a survey, individuals who are often isolated report living with 59% more chronic health conditions than the average respondent.

The study, “South Jersey Health Needs: Connections, Community, and Care," reveals that millennials and other residents close in age (38 or younger) across South Jersey are 50% more likely to feel isolated than baby boomers or those who are 55 or older.

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It also finds that those who report social isolation have 25% worse physical health than those who rarely feel socially isolated. And similar patterns are shown in findings on mental health, with those who often feel socially isolated citing 32% worse mental health than those who are rarely socially isolated.

The survey overall shows that 75% of respondents say that they rarely or never feel socially isolated, while 9% report often having such feelings.

“The findings within this report suggest that younger adults in South Jersey are more socially isolated than older adults,” said study author Sarah Allred, an associate professor of psychology and faculty director of the Rand Institute. “Our research further suggests that younger adults in our region are more than twice as likely to report fair or poor mental health as older adults.”

Younger adults (age 40 and younger) in South Jersey have more mental health concerns than those aged 65 and older in the region, according to Allred. One-quarter of this younger group report “poor” or “fair” mental health compared with 10% of those in the older category, while 22 percent of younger citizens feel “socially isolated” compared with 16 percent of older residents.

College students who participated in the study say that social media impacts their mental health. Increased pressure for them to “look perfect” and to acquire more material things in turn leads to wasteful spending of time and money.

Among the takeaways, individuals who said they often feel socially isolated are:

  • Four times as likely to report misusing drugs
  • Three times as likely to report a mental health issue
  • 2.5 times as likely to report misusing alcohol
  • About twice as likely to report having heart disease
  • Roughly 50 percent more likely to be overweight or obese, have diabetes, and/or suffer from asthma.

Other components of the Rutgers–Camden report focused on communities and transportation.

Approximately 60% of South Jersey residents believe that their neighborhoods are excellent or very good places to live, to buy fruits and vegetables, and to walk and exercise, according to the study. But only 42% say that their neighborhoods are excellent or very good places to connect with others.

The study also suggests that Cumberland County residents are the least satisfied with their health, with 21% of respondents suggesting that they are in fair or poor health. On the other end, Gloucester County, at 13%, has the lowest rate of negative perception.

Focus-group participants explain that limited transportation options prevent residents of South Jersey from receiving important health care, getting healthy food, and connecting with others. The same populations who suffer most from loneliness are also least likely to have reliable transportation, the study finds.

One-third of Camden County residents report difficulty in accessing food stores, compared to one-fourth of Gloucester County residents and one in eight Burlington County residents. Of study respondents, 40% say that lack of transportation is a barrier to health care in their communities, and 29% say that public transportation is a health-related resource missing from their communities.

“South Jersey has poor transportation infrastructure, and that infrastructure falls off dramatically outside of Camden County,” Allred said.

“If we confirm the apparent increasing social isolation of younger people, what are the health implications and what steps, if any, might we take to reverse this trend?" she added. “How might improvements to the transportation infrastructure in target communities impact health and wellbeing? And are there efficient efforts that might increase social connection in communities across the region, improving health in South Jersey and beyond?”

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