Heart attack could increase if you are lonely, the media have claimed this week. The research, from the University of York, suggested that loneliness and social isolation are linked to a 29 per cent increased risk of a heart attack or angina and a 32 per cent heightened risk of having a stroke.
This increase is comparable to other recognised psychological risk factors, such as anxiety and a stressful job, the researchers suggest.
The influence of social relationships on mortality is comparable with well-established risk factors, including physical activity and obesity. Yet, compared with our understanding of these risk factors, we know much less about the implications of loneliness and social isolation for disease aetiology.
Risk of social isolation increases with age due to life factors, such as widowhood and retirement. Nearly one quarter of U.S. adults ages 65 and older are socially isolated, and prevalence of loneliness is even higher, with estimates of 22% to 47%. However, younger adults also experience social isolation and loneliness. A survey from Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project describes “Gen Z” (adults currently ages 18-22) as the loneliest generation. Increased isolation and loneliness among younger adults may be attributed to higher social media use and less engagement in meaningful in-person activities.
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Data also suggests that social isolation and loneliness may have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among young adults ages 18-25, older adults, women and low-income individuals.
Social isolation and loneliness are common, yet under-recognized determinants of cardiovascular and brain health.
Lack of social connection is associated with increased risk of premature death from all causes, especially among men.
Isolation and loneliness are associated with elevated inflammatory markers, and individuals who were less socially connected were more likely to experience physiological symptoms of chronic stress.
In assessing risk factors for social isolation, the relationship between social isolation and its risk factors goes both ways: depression may lead to social isolation, and social isolation may increase the likelihood of experiencing depression.
Social isolation during childhood is associated with increased cardiovascular risk factors in adulthood, such as obesity, high blood pressure and increased blood glucose levels.
The review study found that poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in risk of incident CHD and a 32% increase in risk of stroke.
The researchers found a link between poor social relationships and other recognised psychosocial risk factors, such as anxiety and job strain.
The researchers have suggested that to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, researchers should take loneliness and social isolation into account.
People with heart disease who were socially isolated had a two- to three-fold increase in death during a six-year follow-up study. Socially isolated adults with three or fewer social contacts per month may have a 40% increased risk of recurrent stroke or heart attack. In addition, 5-year heart failure survival rates were lower (60%) for people who were socially isolated, and for those who are both socially isolated and clinical depressed (62%), compared to those who have more social contacts and are not depressed (79%).
Some populations are more vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness, and more research is needed to understand how social isolation impact cardiovascular and brain health in these groups, including children and young adults, people from under-represented racial and ethnic groups, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) individuals, people with physical disabilities, people with hearing or vision impairments, people living in rural areas and under-resourced communities, individuals with limited access to technology and internet service, recent immigrants and incarcerated individuals.