Robin Overlock worries about Elizabeth Brown. That’s his job.

The retired paramedic checks in frequently with Brown, 94, who lives in the same farmhouse in rural Maine where she’s lived since 1940, where she raised sheep and her four children as well as cared for her own mother for the last two decades of her life. The white clapboards have weathered to gray and the barn, the sheep long gone, is beginning to collapse in on itself.

... As he drives toward Brown’s home, on a finger of land bordering Muscongus Bay, Overlock passes houses with logging equipment parked in the driveway or lobster traps stacked outside. Some, like Brown's home, show signs of neglect, and Overlock worries that the people who live in them also might be elderly and isolated.

“They’re out there,” he said, pointing out the windshield toward rolling hills that lead quickly to the bay and the Atlantic Ocean. “If we can find them, help them, keep them safe …”

Overlock is part of a vanguard of health care workers tackling what researchers say is a growing health risk: social isolation. Researchers increasingly are convinced that living alone and losing contact with family and friends can be as much a threat to people's health as more physiological factors, like high blood pressure or obesity.

And the problem is set to get worse in coming decades. Baby boomers, who had fewer children than previous generations, are living longer, often with chronic diseases that can reduce their mobility. Family networks that traditionally cared for older generations are more dispersed or have unraveled altogether. The trend is already acute in rural regions like those in Maine hard hit by the collapse of the paper industry and other manufacturing losses, where young people continue to leave for jobs to the South.

Social isolation is not only unpleasant; it can be deadly. Someone who lacks social relationships has the same risk for early death as someone who is severely obese, according to a 2015 analysis by researchers at Brigham Young University. The feeling of loneliness, or a person’s perception of being isolated, has been linked to higher blood pressure and cognitive decline. Taken together, social isolation and loneliness were associated with a 29 percent increased risk for coronary heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk for stroke....

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Excerpt republished with permission of Politico and the author.