CAMDEN, N.J. — Millennials and younger residents in southern New Jersey suffer from higher rates of social isolation than citizens aged 65 or older which can lead to chronic health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, and asthma, according to new research produced by the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University–Camden.
Overall, the report – titled “South Jersey Health Needs: Connections, Community, and Care” – found that 75 percent of respondents to a survey implemented by the Rutgers–Camden research institute suggested that they rarely or never feel socially isolated, while nine percent reported often having such feelings.
Social isolation can predict a higher number of chronic health conditions, the report said. Further, those who are often isolated reported living with 59 percent more chronic health conditions than the average survey respondent. Across South Jersey, millennials and younger-aged residents (38 or younger) were 50 percent more likely to feel isolated than baby boomers or those who are 55 or older.
The Rutgers–Camden study found that those who report social isolation have 25 percent worse physical health than those who rarely feel socially isolated. Findings about mental health showed similar patterns, with those who often feel socially isolated reporting 32 percent worse mental health than those who are rarely socially isolated.
“The findings within this report suggest that younger adults in South Jersey are more socially isolated than older adults,” Sarah Allred, a Rutgers–Camden associate professor of psychology and faculty director of the Rand Institute, said. “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.”
According to Allred, who authored the study, younger adults aged 40 and younger in South Jersey have more mental health concerns than South Jerseyans aged 65 and older. One-quarter of younger residents reported “poor” or “fair” mental health, compared to 10 percent of those in the older category, while 22 percent of younger citizens felt “socially isolated” compared to 16 percent of older residents.
College students who participated in the Rutgers–Camden study stated that social media impacts their mental health, suggesting that social media increases the pressure to “look perfect” and to acquire more things, which leads to wasteful spending of time and money.
Those who often feel socially isolated were 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; and roughly 50 percent more likely to be overweight or obese, have diabetes, and/or suffer from asthma.
The Rutgers–Camden report found that approximately 60 percent of South Jerseyans believe that their neighborhoods are excellent or very good places to live, to buy fruits and vegetables, and to walk and exercise. Fewer South Jerseyans felt that their neighborhoods have good social connections, with only 42 percent reported that their neighborhoods are excellent or very good places to connect with others.
South Jerseyans who think their neighborhood is a poor or fair place to connect with others were 3.5 times as likely to have poor or fair overall health, 2.7 times as likely to have poor or fair mental health, and 50 percent more likely to be overweight as those who think their neighborhood is a very good or excellent place to connect with others. The patterns were similar for the same responses about a neighborhood as a place to live, as a place to walk and exercise, and as a place to buy fruits and vegetables.
The Rand Institute study also suggests that Cumberland County residents were the least satisfied with their health, with 21 percent of respondents suggesting that they are in fair or poor health; Gloucester County has the lowest rate of negative perception, at 13 percent.
Transportation presents significant barriers to health and access to care. Focus-group participants explained that limited transportation options prevent South Jersey residents from receiving important health care, getting healthy food, and connecting with others. Importantly, the same populations who suffer most from loneliness were also the least likely to have reliable transportation.
Everyday health, including the battle against obesity, suffers from poor access to transportation, the report stated. Many South Jersey residents do not drive themselves to do their food shopping. One-third of Camden County residents reported difficulty in accessing food stores, compared to one-fourth of Gloucester County residents and one in eight Burlington County residents. Overall, 40 percent of study respondents said that lack of transportation is a barrier to health care in their communities, and 29 percent 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, who noted that previous Rand Institute research has reported that South Jersey counties have less than half the number of bus stops as North Jersey counties.
Allred sees the need for further research. “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 asked. “How might improvements to the transportation infrastructure in target communities impact health and well-being? And are there efficient efforts that might increase social connection in communities across the region, improving health in South Jersey and beyond?”