Previous studies have found that older people who are lonely or socially isolated are at an increased risk of cardiovascular problems, such as heart attack or stroke. But a new study, published in Heart, suggests that most of this increase in risk is due to other conventional risk factors – such as smoking and obesity – rather than loneliness itself, unless they already have an underlying cardiovascular problem.
Positive relationships among friends and family have been shown to be a benefit to one's emotional and physical health, but there are also significant risks for those at the other end of the scale. Previous research has found that people who are socially isolated (in which they lack social contact) or lonely (they feel like they have too few contacts and are sad about it) have an increased risk of mortality by a hefty 26 percent.
When it comes to heart attack and stroke risk, however, the researchers of the current study question whether there is a genuine cause and effect going on or whether other related factors are confounding the situation. To try and get a better look at this, they turned to the UK Biobank study, which started following just under 500,000 people between the ages of 40 and 69 in 2006. The study aims to keep tabs on these people for at least 30 years, and allows scientists to study risk factors that can lead to certain conditions and diseases.
In addition to the more standard measurements such as height, weight, and blood pressure, the participants provided information on a whole range of other details, from their ethnic background to their lifestyle choices to questions about their social isolation and loneliness.
Out of the 480,000 people, around 9 percent were classed as socially isolated, 6 percent lonely, and 1 percent both. Over the seven years this study looked at, almost 12,500 people died, 5,731 had a first time heart attack, and 3,471 had a first time stroke.
While it's true that social isolation increased the risk of a heart attack by 43 percent and stroke by 39 percent, and loneliness did so by 49 percent and 36 percent respectively, this is not the full picture. Those who were isolated and lonely were also more likely to smoke and show depressive symptoms, for example.
When these other known risk factors were taken into account, the increased risk for heart attacks and strokes dropped dramatically. The figures for isolation were now 7 percent and 6 percent respectively, and for loneliness 6 percent and 4 percent. In the grand scheme of things, these results were not significant.
That is unless you already have an underlying cardiovascular problem that is either known or unknown. If this is the case, then when other factors are taken into consideration, those who are isolated or lonely have a 25 percent increased risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
The vast majority of the increase in risk then is made up of known risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and level of education. This doesn’t mean that social isolation and loneliness isn’t an issue for other conditions, but that there are other factors we can also focus on when it comes to heart conditions in elderly people.