Though it is our ties to one another that allow us to thrive and live meaningful lives, many of us face feelings of social isolation and loneliness. A new article in the Journal of the American Heart Association states that being and feeling alone are both associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular complications, and an increased risk of death from cardiovascular causes.
Scientists have long investigated how being and feeling alone harms a person’s physical health. And yet, in spite of this abundance of previous scholarship, the severity of the impacts of social isolation and loneliness have remained difficult to decipher.
Setting out to clarify these impacts, a team of researchers recently reviewed the available research on the topic. They found that socially isolated individuals have a 30 percent higher risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as 30 percent higher risk of dying from the same two conditions.
“Over four decades of research has clearly demonstrated that social isolation and loneliness are both associated with adverse health outcomes,” says Crystal Wiley Cené, one of the researchers behind the statement and a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California San Diego Health, in a press release. “Given the prevalence of social disconnectedness across the US, the public health impact is quite significant.”
According to the researchers, this vulnerability to cardiovascular issues is particularly important at the present moment, thanks to the pervasiveness of social isolation and loneliness in the midst and aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, one survey recently reported that as many as 36 percent of people in the US felt feelings of isolation and loneliness “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the face of the pandemic.
Healing the Heart?
Although their review revealed associations between social isolation, loneliness and a variety of health complications and concerns, the strongest ties linked social isolation, loneliness and heart health. Specifically, the researchers realized that being and feeling alone increased the likelihood of heart attack and heart attack death by about 29 percent and the likelihood of stroke and stroke death by around 32 percent.
“Social isolation and loneliness are also associated with worse prognosis in individuals who already have heart disease or stroke,” Cené adds in a press release. According to the report, socially isolated adults faced a 40 percent increase in the risk of recurring heart attacks and strokes, and those who already had heart disease had a 100 to 200 percent increase in the risk of death in a follow-up study of six years.
Additionally, the team found that isolated individuals are more likely to stay sedentary and to avoid physical activity. Both are thought as harmful to heart health.
Though isolation and loneliness can affect anyone, the researchers state that some people are more prone to being and feeling alone than others, including younger adults, older adults, and people from marginalized populations and under-resourced communities. According to the researchers, additional studies will help healthcare workers understand how a lack of social connection impacts the cardiovascular health of vulnerable individuals in particular.
Ultimately, the review found no previous research aimed at reducing isolation and loneliness for the specific purpose of improving heart health. “There is an urgent need to develop, implement and evaluate programs and strategies to reduce the negative effects of social isolation and loneliness on cardiovascular […] health, particularly for at-risk populations,” Cené says in a press release. Clinicians should ask patients about the frequency of their social activity and whether they are satisfied with their level of interactions with friends and family. They should then be prepared to refer people who are socially isolated or lonely — especially those with a history of heart disease or stroke — to community resources to help them connect with others.”