Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday announced that Dr. Ruth Westheimer will be transitioning from assisting Americans with their sex life to helping New Yorkers overcome loneliness.
Dr. Westheimer, known as a sex therapist and talk show host on both radio and television, has been appointed by Hochul as the nation’s first ambassador to loneliness. The honorary position is intended to help New Yorkers of all ages address the growing issue of social isolation, associated with multiple physical and mental health issues, including cognitive decline, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disorders, weakened immunity, Alzheimer’s disease and premature death.
“Hallelujah!” Westheimer said. “I got off the phone with Gov. Hochul yesterday afternoon. She called to ask me to serve as the very first honorary ambassador to loneliness in the nation. I am deeply honored and promised the governor that I will work day and night to help New Yorkers feel less lonely.”
Westheimer is a survivor of the Holocaust and became famous in the 1980s and 1990s. Westheimer first proposed the idea of an honorary ambassadorship a year ago, expressing her desire to help New Yorkers overcome the effects of loneliness and isolation.
In granting that wish, Hochul expressed confidence in Westheimer’s ability to combat a problem that impacts more than a third of adults 45 or older.
“As New York works to fight the loneliness epidemic, some help from honorary Ambassador Ruth Westheimer may be just what the doctor ordered,” Hochul said. “Dr. Ruth Westheimer has offered her services to help older adults and all New Yorkers cope with the loneliness epidemic and I will be appointing her to serve as the nation's first state-level honorary Ambassador to Loneliness. Studies show individuals experiencing loneliness had a 32 percent higher risk of dying early and we need leaders like Dr. Ruth to help address this critical component of our mental health crisis."
Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly a quarter of adults 65 or older are considered socially isolated, according to a recent study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Loneliness is defined as the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact, while social isolation refers to a lack of social connections.
Greg Olsen, director of the New York State Office for the Aging, applauded the move.
"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,” he 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."
The study also found that social isolation significantly increased the risk of premature death from all causes, and even rivals the risks associated other health conditions or behaviors including smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Social isolation is also associated with an approximately 50% increase in the risk of developing dementia. Poor social relationships, which are characterized by social isolation or loneliness, have been associated with a 29% increase in the risk of heart disease, and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
Dr. Ann Sullivan, commissioner of the Office of Mental Health, also expressed support for the move, emphasizing those risks.
“Loneliness and social isolation have long been linked to poor mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety, and has been associated with dementia in older adults,” she said. “As an orphaned survivor of the Holocaust and with her international fame as a talk show host, the estimable Dr. Ruth Westheimer is very well suited to raise awareness of this issue and encourage people of all ages to address issues of isolation in their lives and among their families.”
This isn’t the first step Hochul has taken to address age-related mental health concerns. Last year, she 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.
Meanwhile, the state is working to triple the number of Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics, which serve New Yorkers experiencing mental health issues or substance use disorders regardless of where they reside or their ability to pay for these services. These clinics will be expanded from 13 to 39 by July 2025.