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Harvard School of Public Health Hosts Talk on Social Connectedness, Health Equity Research

Boston University epidemiology professor Koichiro Shiba presented at the Harvard School of Public Health Wednesday.
Boston University epidemiology professor Koichiro Shiba presented at the Harvard School of Public Health Wednesday. By Zing Gee
By Eman H. Abdurezak and Danielle J. Im, Crimson Staff Writers

The Harvard School of Public Health hosted a presentation by Koichiro Shiba, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University’s School of Public Health, for the third segment of the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness Center’s Loneliness and Well-being Seminar series on Wednesday afternoon.

The event — titled “Promoting Social Connectedness for Health Equity: An Application of a New Analytical Framework” — was attended by HSPH affiliates in person and virtually. During the discussion, Shiba highlighted the causes and effects of social isolation and how research in this area can be used to address social disparities.

Shiba began the talk by acknowledging the more transparent causes of disconnectedness in society.

“You can think of changes in household structure, organization, or, of course, Covid-19 pandemic, which fundamentally altered our lives,” Shiba said. “There’s an increase in the number of people experiencing disconnectedness. So that’s number one.”

“Number two is that social disconnectedness can have serious adverse consequences,” he added.

Although some effects of disconnectedness are “somewhat straightforward,” the focus of Shiba’s research centers around the more unknown effects that isolation can have in exacerbating health inequities that disproportionately affect minority groups.

“You can think of a situation where they disconnect and that can negatively influence your mental health and psychological well-being. That’s straightforward,” Shiba said. “But evidence suggests that the effects of disconnectedness can go beyond those outcomes that you might typically expect.”

“This connectedness can influence more broader societal outcomes, so it can negatively impact our economic outcomes in the society,” he added. “It can decrease neighborhood safety levels, it can reduce communities’ disaster preparedness and resilience, which can have adverse consequences in the time of crisis.”

Throughout the talk, Shiba discussed several factors necessary to promote social connectedness at the societal level.

“The first pillar is really about designing a social infrastructure in local communities. And I want to talk about this example of community gatherings, places where older adults can get together and congregate, engage in lots of activities, and make new friends,” Shiba said.

Shiba also shared findings on the efficacy of virtual methods of connectedness and findings that showed “these exposures did not seem to be associated with most of the health and wellbeing outcomes.”

“Now, I want to be clear here that I am not claiming that online social interaction is not a way to go, right? It’s not hopeless,” he said. “I think what this finding — what this line of evidence is suggesting us — is that the experience of online social interactions that we have access to now is not fully replicating the health-promoting aspect of our in-person social interactions.”

To conclude his talk, Shiba pointed to the future of research in social connectedness, emphasizing the need to develop empirical research to further reduce health inequities.

“I think we need more evidence, looking at how the interventions, actions might influence our connectedness differently across individuals. So that line of evidence is completely lacking in my opinion,” Shiba said.

“And we need more research, of course. But I think what this is suggesting is that promoting connectedness has the potential to reduce health disparities,” he added.

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