Maine holds the distinction of having the second highest percentage of residents over the age of 65 (after Florida), and the nation’s highest percentage of rural residents, according to the latest Census. As a result, Maine is often ahead of the game in considering how best to meet the needs of an aging population.

From transportation to housing to health care, there are innovative initiatives underway in the Pine Tree State that can be a model for the nation on how to meet the evolving needs of the 10,000 individuals turning 65 every day.

However, Maine – and the rest of the country — is suffering an unseen epidemic, one carrying greater health risk than obesity or smoking. The problem is social isolation. And, closely connected to that, is the loneliness that accompanies a lack of meaningful relationships or personal connection with others. Social isolation has been associated with increased mortality, mobility loss, functional decline and clinical dementia.

More than 130 national leaders are convening this week in Portland for the second annual Connectivity Summit on Rural Aging to launch a forward-thinking discussion focused on this emerging public health issue. We will bring together experts and practitioners from diverse backgrounds to identify solutions that may reduce the impact of social isolation and enable better health for those aging in rural parts of Maine and the country.

The reasons for all of us to strive to make a positive impact in the lives of our older rural neighbors are many. A new nationwide poll sponsored by Tivity Health shows that, among rural seniors, nearly two in three believe that loneliness or social isolation in old age have a negative impact on their physical health. A majority report dealing with multiple health conditions, and nearly one in four rate their own health as either fair or poor.

There is a quantifiable cost — according to a study by the AARP Foundation, Medicare spends an estimated $1,608 more annually on each senior who is socially isolated.

Public and private entities have a responsibility to start this dialogue — and to start it now, as our population of older adults grows by thousands every year. According to the latest Census data, the 65 and older population in Maine grew by over 15 percent from 2000 to 2010. By 2020, the number of people over 65 in Maine is expected to outnumber those younger than 65.

Aging in remote areas presents myriad challenges, which become even more daunting when aging alone. Well-stocked grocery stores or good hospitals may be miles away. The cost of many health care services is simply too high. Access to transportation – for everything from getting to the doctor, a grocery store, or the airport — can be extremely limited.

Within rural areas of Maine, these barriers may be more pronounced. The per capita income in rural Maine is about $4,000 lower than the per capita income statewide. The poverty rate is 15 percent, higher than urban areas of the state. And about 7 percent of Mainers in rural areas lack health insurance. All of these point to potential risk factors that become exacerbated when someone is socially isolated.

Fortunately, there are solutions in the works. From volunteer drivers and subsidized ride-share services to rural broadband initiatives and home visit programs, communities are working to address this crisis. Local garden co-ops are connecting seniors with youth, while health care providers and insurers are incorporating social opportunities alongside seniors’ regular checkups.

At Tivity Health, we offer SilverSneakers, the nation’s leading fitness program for older adults. This program, which is provided through participating Medicare Advantage plans, is proven to improve the physical health of seniors and to foster vital social connections.

Our nationwide poll revealed that a majority of rural seniors want their representatives in government, as well as businesses and the private sector, to help out. This week in Portland, we are putting our “collaborative IQ” to work to address social isolation. There are public and private capabilities, programs, and products that can reverse this crisis. Working together, we can ensure that older adults have the opportunity to age with dignity, vitality and purpose regardless of where they live.

Donato Tramuto is president and CEO of Tivity Health, which provides SilverSneakers — the nation’s largest community fitness program for older adults — and is founder of the Tramuto Foundation and Health eVillages.

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