Loneliness and Heart Disease: Is There a Link?

Healthy Heart | Aug. 11, 2017

It's natural to feel a little lonely sometimes. Perhaps you live far away from family and close friends. Find yourself spending long hours at the office. Or thanks to technology, chatting more behind smartphone or laptop screens than with real-live human beings.

When you're left alone for the afternoon, you might dive into a good book and enjoy the peace and quiet. But there's a big difference between being alone and feeling lonely.

Research shows that not only do you live a fuller life when other people are in it, but you're also likely to live a healthier and longer one, too. Some studies show that extroverted people have stronger immune systems that are better equipped to fight off infection. That's likely due to increased exposure to other people's germs and that in-person interaction.

So rather than living an isolated life, one filled with companionship comes with its own health rewards.

Link Between Loneliness and Heart Disease

It's important to understand the difference between loneliness and social isolation. They're not synonymous, according to the journal Heart.

Loneliness is the subjective negative feeling associated with a perception that your relationships are deficient. Social isolation, meanwhile, is the more objective measure of the absence of relationships, ties or contact with others. In other words, the physical separation of being apart.

People who spend more time alone and feel lonely regularly have an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, according to Heart. The analysis of 181,000 adults discovered that loneliness, social isolation or both were linked to a 29 percent higher risk of heart attack and a 32 percent greater risk of stroke. The effect of being lonely on the heart was similar to that of other stressors, such as anxiety and job strain, the study found.

Similarly, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discovered that loneliness may trigger fight-or-flight stress signaling that may affect the body's production of white blood cells. The signal may increase inflammation in the body and decrease its antiviral response, meaning people who feel lonely have a less effective immune response.

Strong Personal Relationships Are the "Secret Sauce"

Fighting that lonely feeling doesn't mean surrounding yourself with strangers. People can feel just as lonely or isolated in a group setting as they do by themselves. The secret to feeling better is strengthening your social network of good friends, neighbors or family members. This means maintaining existing relationships or reaching out to long-lost loved ones to regain those ties. Forging new friendships are another way to improve health and reduce the risk factors of heart disease.

Both the quality – and quantity – of social relationships can positively affect health outcomes, says the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. And as people age, these personal links become even more important.

Need more incentive to make the effort? A study published in PLoS Medicine found people with strong social relationships are 50 percent more likely to live longer than those with weaker social ties.

In both the United States and Britain, about one in three people older than 65 live alone and the rate of loneliness in that group ranges from 10 percent to 46 percent, according to The New York Times. Older adults may feel cut off when living alone, facing chronic illnesses, or dealing with the loss of friends, as well as the inability to take part in independent activities.

Sometimes, It Takes A Village ...

Wondering what can you do to help older family members, neighbors or friends boost their personal connections?

Spend more time with them during visits, or take them out for a meal or invite them to come. If they're dealing with health challenges, encourage them to take part in support groups that offer in-person interaction, as well as social activities like dance that get them up and moving.

Schedule regular activities, such as garage sale hunting or tea dates.

If you don't live nearby, check out local resources for regular entertainment available to them. Encourage them to reconnect with close friends by phone or through the mail. And if they are not familiar, teach them how to navigate online technology. A computer with a webcam can be a great way to virtually invite them into your living room – no travel required.

Volunteering at a retirement home or with an organization that makes house visits is another way to offer person-to-person contact for those who need it.

AARP backs a national effort to raise awareness of lonesomeness among older adults. The network Connect2Affect includes a self-assessment test and allows people to reach out to others feeling disconnected. Spending time with lonely friends or family members not only increases their quality of life and overall well-being, but actually may boost their heart health along the way.

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