Social Isolation and Loneliness Can Kill
Researchers, writing in the peer reviewed British journal Heart in April 2016 have analyzed 23 studies and found that social isolation or feelings of loneliness had a strong correlation with an increased risk for heart disease, 29 percent, and stroke, 32 percent. There was no statistically significant difference between men and women.
The data came from 181,006 men and women 18 and older. There were 4,628 coronary events and 3,002 strokes in follow-up periods ranging from three to 21 years. The study’s lead author, Nicole K. Valtorta, a research fellow at the University of York in England, has said that it’s not clear what is causing the association. Are people with less social interaction more likely to indulge in unhealthful behavior like smoking or excessive drinking, or is there something inherently unhealthful about loneliness?
In the anti-aging documentary “Reverse Aging Now” cardiologist Dean Ornish, MD talked about the perils of what he termed emotional heart disease. In his book Love & Survival he wrote, “The profound feelings of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and depression that are so prevalent in our culture with the breakdown of the social structures that used to provide us with a sense of connection community… [are] to me a root of the illness, cynicism, and violence in our society.”
Regarding the new study, Valtorta said she and her colleagues knew that people with weaker social relationships were at greater risk of dying early, but didn’t expect the extent of the correlation to cardiovascular disease, akin to risk factors like high cholesterol. She was also surprised at the lack of research on loneliness. The study’s authors emphasized that their analysis found a correlation, and did not establish cause and effect.
In related April news, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of suicides in the United States has been on the rise since 1999 for everyone between the ages of 10 and 74. The increase is substantial, nearly 24 percent. Black males were the only demographic group that showed a decline, of 8 percent. Suicide is rare with people who are socially and spiritually connected.
One Los Angeles charity which provides food for the homebound, Meals on Wheels West, is very aware that simply bringing in food would fall short in helping its clients. It trains its volunteers to do wellness checks, assessing both physical and mental health fitness. “We’ll also do referrals to other agencies. If someone is really depressed, we will get another local agency to do mental health visits with them.” MOWW Executive Director Chris Baca told me in a recent chat. Clients appreciate the genuine concern expressed by the charity.
So what does this loneliness study mean for those of us who are aging?
Keep socially engaged, especially if you’re retired and no longer have daily workplace relationships. Ideally, you can rely on a spouse who is there for you but all relationships with people who care whether you live or die can help you live longer. Try to reconcile yourself with estranged family members. I won't embarrass her by revealing her name, but a friend has rekindled a loving relationship with her brother; both are in their sixties, so there was little time to lose. Both now savor their renewed ties.
Finally, another social factor that you might want to consider is religion. It offers both spiritual and social support. Again, from Dean Ornish in recounting a University of Texas study about survival rates from open heart surgery, “Those who neither had regular group participation nor drew strength and comfort from their religion were more than seven times more likely to die six months after surgery.”
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