Hochul appoints Dr. Ruth Westheimer Loneliness Ambassador

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Thursday that Dr. Ruth Westheimer will transition from helping Americans with their sex lives to helping New Yorkers overcome loneliness.

Dr. Westheimer, known as a sex therapist and host of talk shows on both radio and television, has been appointed by Hochul as the country's first ambassador against loneliness. The honorary position is intended to help New Yorkers of all ages address the growing problem of social isolation, which is associated with multiple physical and mental health problems, including cognitive decline, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, weakened immunity, the disease of Alzheimer's and premature death.

“Hallelujah!” said Westheimer. “Yesterday afternoon I called Governor Hochul. She called me to ask if I would like to be the country's first-ever honorary ambassador for loneliness. I am deeply honored and have promised the Governor that I will work day and night to help New Yorkers feel less alone.”

Westheimer is a Holocaust survivor who rose to fame 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 making that wish come true, Hochul expressed confidence in Westheimer's ability to combat a problem that affects more than a third of adults age 45 or older.

“As New York works to combat the loneliness epidemic, some help from Honorary Ambassador Ruth Westheimer could 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 appoint her as the nation's first honorary ambassador at the state level. Studies show that individuals who experience loneliness have a 32 percent higher risk of dying prematurely and we have leaders like Dr. Ruth is needed to address this critical part of our mental health crisis.”

Compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly a quarter of adults age 65 or older are considered socially isolated, according to a recent survey from 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 of far-reaching influence who spoke eloquently and candidly to us about issues fundamental to who we are and how we interact in a complex world.” he said, “I can't think of anyone better than Dr. Ruth Westheimer to connect with New Yorkers of all ages and help amplify the problem of social isolation, which is among our greatest public health challenges, even though it is a hidden problem.”

The study also found that social isolation significantly increased the risk of premature death from any cause, even competing with the risks associated with 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, characterized by social isolation or loneliness, have been linked to 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 and highlighted these risks.

“Loneliness and social isolation have long been associated with poor mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety, and have been linked to dementia in older adults,” she said. “As an orphaned Holocaust survivor and with her international fame as a talk show host, the esteemed Dr. Ruth Westheimer is uniquely qualified 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 issues. Last year, she signed an executive order to create the state's first-ever Aging Master Plan to ensure older New Yorkers can live healthy and 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 or substance abuse issues, regardless of where they live or their ability to pay for these services. These clinics will be expanded from 13 to 39 in July 2025.

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