KCUR health reporter Alex Smith has snagged a prestigious international fellowship that will enable him to study the effects of social isolation on health and life expectancy.
The 2019 AHCJ (Association of Health Care Journalists) International Health Study Fellowship will pay for Smith to travel to London to examine how the United Kingdom, which recently kicked off a national campaign to combat social isolation, is addressing the problem.
This large-scale, comparative reporting project is expected to take the form of multiple feature stories and/or a long audio documentary, which KCUR expects to roll out this summer.
The United States and United Kingdom both share the sad distinction of being among the few places in the developed world where life expectancy has been declining in recent years, owing in part to “deaths of despair.”
Some experts believe that a root cause of the phenomenon is social isolation, which is increasingly viewed as a critical factor in mental and physical health. It can have larger societal effects as well. Social scientists have found strong links between social isolation and xenophobia, political extremism and mass violence.
United Kingdom officials this year launched a national campaign to combat loneliness, but the problem has gone largely unrecognized in the Midwestern United States.
“During the last year of reporting on the opioid crisis and declining rural and urban health, I wondered if there could be some underlying problem at work,” Smith says. “A lot of new research shows that social isolation may play a big role in many health problems that are overwhelming many parts of our area and the UK.”
Smith joined KCUR in 2006 as an assistant producer. He has been covering health for the station since January 2014.
He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a week-long media fellowship last year at Harvard Medical School to support his reporting on the opioid crisis and pain management.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.