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Media personality and sex expert Dr. Ruth Westheimer is now New York state’s honorary ambassador to loneliness, a role that’s the first of its kind in the nation.
Appointed by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul Thursday, Westheimer is aiming to help New Yorkers with social isolation, which is associated with physical and mental health issues such as cardiovascular disease, depression and earlier death, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has described the prevalence of loneliness and isolation as a national epidemic among all ages.
“Hallelujah!” Westheimer said in a news release. “I am deeply honored and promised the Governor that I will work day and night to help New Yorkers feel less lonely.”
As New York state works to combat its loneliness epidemic, “some help from honorary Ambassador Ruth Westheimer may be just what the doctor ordered,” Hochul said in a statement.
Westheimer, a psychosexual therapist and author of more than 37 books, rose to prominence on television and radio in the 1980s and ’90s. She left Germany, her home country, at age 10, having lost her family to the Holocaust, and became an ubiquitous media figure. In 2022, the 95-year-old Bronx resident suggested the idea of becoming an “ambassador” to provide advice on loneliness and isolation, according to Hochul’s office.
Under Hochul’s leadership, New York is working to create “age-friendly communities and build a more robust system of mental health care,” according to the news release. “Last year, Governor Hochul signed an executive order to create the state’s first-ever Master Plan for Aging to ensure older New Yorkers can live healthy, fulfilling lives while aging with dignity and independence.”
Greg Olsen, New York state’s director of its Office for the Aging, said in a statement that he’s looking forward “to working with Dr. Ruth Westheimer to raise awareness of initiatives already implemented at the New York State Office for the Aging to combat loneliness and isolation, building on these successes across all ages.”
Hochul’s office cited a 2020 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which found more than one-third of adults age 45 or older experience loneliness, with nearly one-fourth of adults age 65 or older considered socially isolated. A sense of being alone defines loneliness, while social isolation is an objective lack of social connections.
More recent studies have also emphasized the importance of social connection, finding that a lack of certain types — such as never being visited by friends or family or feeling like you have someone to confide in — is associated with a higher risk of dying early from any cause. Social isolation has also been linked to cognitive decline, anxiety and weakened immunity.
The appointment of Westheimer delivers upon a charge issued by multiple academics who, in their studies on social connection, argued that loneliness and social isolation isn’t just a personal issue for individuals to solve on their own, but a problem in need of policy-based support, as well.
Olsen echoed Hochul’s remarks, praising the decision Thursday.
“For decades, the public has turned to Dr. Ruth Westheimer as an authority with wide-reaching influence who spoke to us eloquently and candidly about issues that are fundamental to who we are and how we interact with one another in a complex world,” Olsen said. “I can think of no one better than Dr. Ruth Westheimer to connect with New Yorkers of all ages and help elevate the issue of social isolation, which is among our top public health challenges, albeit a hidden one.”
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