By Sydney Murphy Health Day Reporter
health day reporter

FRIDAY, August 5, 2022 (HealthDay News) — Social isolation and loneliness put people at a 30% higher risk of heart attack, stroke or death, warns a new scientific statement from the American Heart Association (AHA).

The statement also highlights the lack of data on interventions that may improve heart health in people who are isolated or lonely. It was published on August 4 in the Journal of the American Heart Association .

“More than four decades of research have clearly demonstrated that both social isolation and loneliness are associated with adverse health effects,” said Dr. Crystal Wiley Cené, who led the team that authored the statement. “Given the prevalence of social disconnection in the United States, the public health impact is quite significant.”

Nearly a quarter of American adults age 65 and older are socially isolated and up to 47% may be lonely, according to the AHA. The risk increases with age due to factors such as retirement and widowhood.

But a Harvard University survey suggests the loneliest generation is Gen Z – 18 to 22 year olds – who may also be the most isolated. One possible reason: they spend more time on social media and less time engaging in meaningful in-person activities.

And the pandemic appears to have worsened the situation among young and old adults, as well as among women and the poor.

“While social isolation and feelings of loneliness are related, they are not the same thing,” said Cene, chief administrator for health equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of California at San Diego Health. “Individuals may lead relatively isolated lives and not feel lonely, and conversely, people with many social contacts may still experience loneliness.”

Social isolation is having infrequent personal contact with people for social relationships, such as family, friends, or members of the same community or religious group. Loneliness is when you feel lonely or have less connection with others than you would like.

To investigate the relationship between social isolation and heart, blood vessel and brain health, the writing group reviewed research on social isolation published up to July 2021. The review found:

  • Social isolation and loneliness are common but underestimated factors that affect the heart, blood vessels and brain.
  • Lack of social connections is associated with a higher risk of premature death from any cause, particularly among men.
  • People who were less socially connected were more likely to have physical symptoms of chronic stress. Isolation and loneliness are linked to increased inflammation.
  • When assessing risk factors for social isolation, it is important to remember that depression can lead to isolation, and isolation can make depression more likely.
  • Social isolation during childhood is linked to increased risk factors for heart health, including obesity, high blood pressure and high blood sugar.
  • Transportation, housing, family discontent, pandemic, and natural disasters are a few social and environmental factors that have affected social interactions.

“There is strong evidence linking social isolation and loneliness to an increased risk of deterioration in overall heart and brain health; however, data on the association with certain outcomes, such as heart failure, dementia, and cognitive impairment, are sparse,” Cené said.

The strongest evidence points to a link between social isolation, loneliness and death from heart disease and stroke, with a 32% higher risk of stroke and death from stroke and a risk of heart attack 29% higher.

“Social isolation and loneliness are also associated with a worse prognosis in people who already have coronary heart disease or stroke,” Cené said.

In addition to behaviors that have a detrimental effect on heart and brain health, isolation and loneliness are linked to lower self-reported levels of physical activity and lower consumption of fruits and vegetables. Additionally, numerous large-scale studies have found significant links between loneliness and a higher likelihood of smoking.

“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 and brain health, especially for at-risk populations,” Cené said. in an AHA press release.

She said clinicians should ask patients about their social activity and whether they are satisfied with their level of interaction with friends and family.

“They should then be prepared to refer socially isolated or lonely people — especially those with a history of heart disease or stroke — to community resources to help them connect with others,” he said. -she adds.

The authors said more research is needed to understand how isolation affects heart and brain health in children and young adults; people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups; LGBTQ people; people with physical or hearing disabilities; those in rural areas; and people with limited resources.

The statement notes that studies with older adults have found that interventions aimed at addressing negative thoughts and low self-esteem, as well as fitness programs and recreational activities in senior centers, have shown to be promising in reducing isolation and loneliness.

“We don’t know if being really isolated [social isolation] or feel isolated [loneliness] matters the most for cardiovascular and brain health because only a few studies have looked at both in the same sample,” Cené said, adding that more research is needed.

More information

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say more about the health risks of loneliness.

SOURCE: American Heart Association, press release, August 3, 2022