Social Isolation and Loneliness Linked to Heart Disease

Even after adjusting for other risk behaviors such as smoking and sedentary lifestyles, social isolation and loneliness were associated with higher odds of new heart disease and stroke in this population by 8% and 5%, respectively. For older women with higher levels of social isolation and loneliness, the risk increased to 27%. A study published online on February 2 at JAMA open network, studied social isolation and loneliness over 8 years among nearly 58,000 women using questionnaires. Those who took part in the study did not have a history of heart attack, stroke, or coronary heart disease. During the study, 1,599 people had a new diagnosis of coronary heart disease or stroke or died from cardiovascular disease.

“This is a strong signal to us that there is a pathway that causes higher levels of cardiovascular disease among socially isolated and lonely people,” says co-author John Bellettieri, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the Herbert Wertheim School public health and human longevity science.

“I always thought that social support would alleviate any type of loneliness or isolation, but as we tested in the study, I don’t think it works that way,” says lead author Natalie Golaszewski, Ph.D., a Herbert research assistant. Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science in San Diego. She warns that this finding may be because too few of the women assessed had low levels of social support to see a modifying effect.

Where from here?

“Social isolation and loneliness are now major issues for everyone, especially older people,” says Katherine Rexrod, MD, director of women’s health in the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “It’s especially important to look at women as they really make up the majority of the older age group.”

Given that there is a very clear link between social isolation, loneliness, and poor health, including heart disease and stroke, she says the next step will be to focus on ways to identify people at risk.

“I really think this study highlights the need to think about effective measures to reduce social isolation and loneliness, especially among our aging population,” says Rexrod.

Holaszewski says measuring social isolation and loneliness as part of standard primary care can go a long way in identifying patients at risk.

“Whether by asking just a few questions, as we did in our study or by creating an index score to get a sense of people’s social connections,” she says.

National Institute on Aging suggests social isolation and loneliness Outreach Toolkit with ideas to support the elderly.

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