To answer the question asked by Motown’s “one hit wonder” Jimmy Ruffin, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” the answer appears to be death from heart disease or certainly an increased risk of it. While Mr. Ruffin answered his question in 1967, it’s a new study that was published this week in the journal Heart, that shows that loneliness increases both the risk of heart disease and strokes.
Loneliness should be easy to combat?
Old people need more cats? In my mind that would work, but apparently loneliness and social isolation is a little more complicated than that and people need people. Loneliness and social isolation taken together can increase the risk of heart disease or stoke by as much as 30% according to a new study by British researchers.
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“We take risk factors like obesity and physical inactivity for granted, whereas we do not yet with social isolation and loneliness,” says lead researcher and University of York research fellow Nicole Valtorta.
It should be noted that no direct link was found but rather a serious association when the researchers scoured over 23 previous studies that looked at over 180,000 older adults. Like stress or anxiety, the lonelier or more isolated a person felt, the greater the risk.
“We found an association between poor social relationships and incident cardiovascular disease comparable in size to other recognized psycho-social risk factors, such as anxiety and job strain,” the authors wrote.
“Our findings indicate that efforts to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke could benefit from taking both loneliness and social isolation into account.
“Tackling loneliness and isolation may be a valuable addition to coronary heart disease and stroke prevention strategies. Health practitioners have an important role to play in acknowledging the importance of social relations to their patients.”
Accompanying editorial confirms the findings
In this day and age of social networks you would think that loneliness would be mitigated by their prevalence. While to an extent loneliness does ebb with the use of Facebook and other networks, human contact remains important and far too many older people live alone.
“With such rapid changes in the way people are interacting socially, empirical research is needed to address several important questions. Does interacting socially via technology reduce or replace face to face social interaction and/or alter social skills? ask Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Dr. Timothy Smith of Brigham Young University in an accompanying editorial in Heart.
The two that authored the editorial suggest that loneliness and social isolation must be given the same attention by medical professionals as they would smoking and other known contributors to heart attacks and strokes.
“Similar to how cardiologists and other healthcare professionals have taken strong public stances regarding other factors exacerbating [cardiovascular disease], eg. smoking, and diets high in saturated fats, further attention to social connections is needed in research and public health surveillance, prevention and intervention efforts,” the two wrote in summing up their editorial.
Local Government Association (UK) spokeswoman Izzi Seccombe echoed the editorial when asked about the new study.
“The impact of loneliness can be devastating and costly – with consequences comparable to smoking and obesity,” says Seccombe. “This can be prevented with early intervention, which a number of councils are already successfully delivering in partnership with volunteer and community organizations.”
Hopefully, after reading this you will at least give your mother a call this evening. Make a list of all those older, who live alone, and make a point to call or visit more often. According to this study, it could just save their lives.