Loneliness has been called the silent killer.

The U.S. surgeon general has described the negative health effects of social isolation as being as damaging as smoking cigarettes. While many aging Americans are at risk of feeling or being socially isolated, veterans are particularly vulnerable.

Nicole Roberts, an associate professor of psychology in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Arizona State University, has spent the last few years studying how to improve health care outcomes for veterans. She notes that Americans who have served in the military often suffer from medical conditions that are the result of serving in combat or performing highly physical jobs. Some vets have spent significant amounts of time living in close quarters on bases and later with a structured lifestyle, leaving them uniquely impacted when they find themselves retired and alone.

Roberts also says many veterans have been especially driven by the spirit of providing service to their communities.

“In many ways, veterans are the epitome of being active contributors earlier in their lives,” Roberts says. “When they transition into older age, many continue making these active contributions, but others suffer from serious health conditions that can make them feel marginalized and isolated.”

To tackle this problem, Roberts enthusiastically agreed to join forces with Ming Zhao, an associate professor of computer science and engineering in the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU.

They are part of a cross-disciplinary team of researchers who have been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, to develop artificial intelligence, or AI, tools for edge devices that will improve health care outcomes for aging veterans.

The project builds on Zhao’s previous work developing machine learning systems that integrate health care information into user-friendly tools and interfaces for older adults. He assembled a team that includes Roberts, David W. Coon, associate dean of research initiatives, support, and engagement and a professor in the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, and Erin Chiou, an associate professor of human systems engineering in The Polytechnic School. They came together to research how veterans not only can survive, but thrive, becoming more empowered and gaining greater access to social and community relationships.

Read the full story on Full Circle.