Donato Tramuto, CEO of Tivity Health, speaks Tuesday during the summit at the Westin Portland Harborview. He cited studies showing that loneliness has negative health effects as serious as smoking, obesity and alcohol abuse, and called for increased awareness of the need for programs to address social isolation. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The vast majority of seniors living in rural communities across the United States are dealing with multiple health issues that too often are made worse by social isolation and loneliness, according to a new national survey.

Eradicating that isolation on the outskirts of America is the focus of the Connectivity Summit on Rural Aging, a national gathering that has attracted more than 130 elder advocates and other experts to Portland this week.

Summit organizers chose to hold the second annual summit in Maine because it’s not only the oldest state, with a median age of 44.7, it’s also the most rural, with more than 60 percent of Mainers living outside a metropolitan region, according to the U.S. Census.

So how Maine addresses problems facing seniors living in isolation – from access to health care and housing to lack of public transportation and other public services – will serve as a bellwether for other states.

“Maine is the pioneer on the nation’s longevity frontier,” said Joseph Coughlin, Ph.D., director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If we fail here, we’ll fail the nation.”

Maine also is now tied with Florida and Montana for having the largest proportion of residents age 65 and older – 19 percent of the state’s 1.3 million people – a measure that for years put Florida at No. 1 and Maine at No. 2. The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram reported on the diverse issues facing Maine because of its rapidly aging population in a yearlong series, The Challenge of Our Age.

The three-day summit, which started Tuesday, is hosted by Tivity Health, a Tennessee-based provider of health and fitness programs such as SilverSneakers, in collaboration with the MIT AgeLab, Health eVillages and Jefferson College of Population Health.

Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of MIT’s AgeLab, speaks during Tuesday’s Connectivity Summit on Rural Aging. He called Maine “the pioneer on the nation’s longevity frontier,” and said, “If we fail here, we’ll fail the nation.” Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Coughlin is one of several featured speakers at the summit. U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., is scheduled to lead a lunchtime panel discussion Wednesday on “Collaborating with Policymakers to Reverse Social Isolation.”

Tivity this week launched ruralage.com, a website where people can share ideas to address issues related to rural aging such as social isolation, infrastructure, nutrition, health care and community.

The website is founded on the premise that each day more than 10,000 Americans turn 65, and one in four American seniors lives in a small town or rural area. These communities often lack the services, resources, activities, connectivity and infrastructure of their more urban counterparts, which contributes to deep disparities in health and quality of life.

Tivity CEO Donato Tramuto believes many solutions to these problems already exist in communities across the United States.

“We don’t have any magic bullets, (but) I don’t think we have to invent anything new,” Tramuto said during Tuesday’s opening session at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

Tramuto pointed to studies that have shown loneliness has negative health impacts similar to smoking, obesity and alcohol abuse. He called for increased awareness of the need for programs to address social isolation and reforming the health care payment system to fund them.

In July, Tivity commissioned Public Opinion Strategies, a Virginia-based market research firm, to survey 400 U.S. residents age 65 and older across nearly 1,900 rural counties.

The survey found that 27 percent of rural seniors describe their health as fair to poor, while 34 percent said they had four or more health problems such as arthritis, cancer or mental illness. A breakdown of Maine respondents, if there were any, was unavailable.

The survey also found that 64 percent of rural seniors see a direct connection between feelings of loneliness and isolation and negative impacts on physical health.

Sixty-six percent of rural seniors said their state officials should be doing more to address the needs of older residents, including health care costs, public transportation and financial assistance such as property tax relief.

And 67 percent of respondents said businesses and corporations have a role to play in addressing the needs of seniors in rural communities.

Nearly 100 Maine communities are working on initiatives to meet the needs of older citizens and help them age in place, according to Jess Maurer, a summit attendee who is executive director of the Maine Council on Aging.

Maurer is a founding organizer of the annual Maine Wisdom Summit, started in 2014, which will be held this year on Sept. 12 at the Augusta Civic Center. One of the first public forums in the country to address the challenges of a rapidly aging population, the Maine summit this year will focus on ways of “Charting the Pathway Forward.”

“We’re on the leading edge of an aging-in-place revolution,” Maurer said outside the summit. “We are figuring out how we want to live together in communities as we age and finding ways to meet those needs.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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