Every Monday during the summer, some of the residents of Lyme, New Hampshire, gather up fruits and vegetables from their gardens to donate to Veggie Cares, a program that distributes local food to people living alone. Volunteers collect, sort, and package the produce, then head out in separate directions to deliver the food to some Lyme's most vulnerable, isolated residents.
While the stated goal of the program is to provide people with healthy food, Veggie Cares volunteers also deliver companionship. Visits are often more than a quick drop-off—they may involve a shared cup of tea, an offer to replace burned-out light bulbs, or a chance to check in on sick or elderly neighbors.
Nine million elderly people currently suffer from food insecurity in the United States, and the produce provided by Veggie Cares is one way to safeguard the health of Lyme residents who may be at risk. But recent research supports the idea that the companionship the volunteers provide may be physically nourishing in its own way.
In a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers from the Universities of California and Chicago asked 141 elderly people to take a questionnaire that assessed their levels of social isolation. The study authors then measured the expression of more than 400 immune-system genes, and analyzed how the expression of these genes corresponded to participants’ self-reported isolation. In the 26 percent of elderly people who identified themselves as socially isolated, they discovered, the genes responsible for inflammation were more active, while genes that help defend against viral infections were depressed.