Lonely people who are isolated from family, friends, or romantic relationships are more likely to get heart disease and have a stroke, according to research. According to the study, social isolation raised the risk by about 30%, which is the same level that having a high anxiety job would have.
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"Addressing loneliness and social isolation could have an important role in the prevention of two of the leading causes of ill health and mortality worldwide," said lead researcher Nicole Valtorta, a research fellow in the department of health sciences at the University of York, a British research facility and college.
"We take risk factors like obesity and physical inactivity for granted, whereas we do not yet with social isolation and loneliness," she said. "The data from our study support us taking it seriously."
Still, this analysis couldn't prove the link, only show that it actually exists.
"However, if we put the study findings into context, what we found is comparable in size to the effect of other psychosocial risk factors such as anxiety and job strain. Efforts to prevent heart disease and stroke could benefit from taking social isolation and loneliness into account," Valtorta said.
The report was published online April 19, 2016 in the journal Heart.
The study analyzed 23 previously published studies that cover 180,000 adults. Around 4,600 of those adults had heart attacks and 3,000 people suffered strokes. The pooled data showed that loneliness and social isolation led to a 29% increased risk of heart attack and angina attack - and a 32% for a stroke.
In the past, loneliness has been linked to a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, and early death.
These findings also suggest that health care companies need to ensure that people do have companionship, according to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University
Still, it will be an uphill task to get people to interact with others if they like to be alone. Social media can go a long way to make it happen.
"However, there is some early research to suggest it may not have the same benefits as real person-to-person contact, but it is still too early to tell," she said.
Holt-Lunstad said that the quality of the relationships is just as important as having them. "Thus, making time to foster and nurture existing relationships is a good start," she said.
Feelings of loneliness, Holt-Lunstad explained, have a direct impact on the health and the heart.
"For instance, it can raise blood pressure and increase inflammation. These can subsequently increase risk for atherosclerosis [hardening of the arteries] and a heart attack," she said.
Having relationships also makes us more likely ot take care of ourselves, according to Holt-Lunstad.
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"Given that the effect of social connections on risk for heart disease and stroke and death is equivalent and, in many cases, exceeds that of other factors such as light smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and air quality, we need to start taking social connection seriously for our health," she said.