Keeping the Heart Beating: Social Isolation and Cardiovascular Health

By Karina Alibhai
Social Connectedness Fellow

It is well known that social variables can affect health. For example, recent studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation are significant risk factors for stroke and coronary heart disease.[i] This disease occurs when plaque builds up inside the coronary arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle.[ii] If this supply is reduced or blocked, angina or a heart attack can occur.

Loneliness, lack of emotional support, and lack of companionship are all effects of social isolation. A 2002 study found that a greater degree of loneliness is not only associated with low levels of both emotional support and companionship, but also an increased probability of having a coronary condition.[iii] This relationship changes with age, as older adults are more likely to experience social isolation and suffer from poorer cardiovascular health.

Older adults are unfortunately more prone to coronary heart disease, with both genetics and lifestyle as contributing factors. Among men, the risk for coronary heart disease increases starting at age 45, while for women the risk starts increasing at age 55.[iv] Meanwhile, older adults are also more susceptible to social isolation. Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey found that almost 1 in 5 individuals aged 65 or over felt a lack of companionship, left out, or isolated from others.[v]

Although social isolation, especially among seniors, is a growing epidemic, it can be used to predict cardiovascular health outcomes. A 2006 study looked at social support and its effects on cardiovascular health among adults over the age of 60.[vi] The cross-cultural study demonstrated that social connectedness is an important aspect of health, no matter the ethnic background of an individual. Interestingly enough, the findings suggested that family support predicted more outcomes among Hispanics, whereas the support offered by one’s sense of belonging predicted more outcomes among Caucasians. Overall, social support and connectedness was found to be the strongest and most consistent predictor of disease outcomes.

Social isolation is a risk factor that can and must be mitigated, especially given that older adults are already vulnerable when it comes to their health. If we are proactive in addressing social isolation where it occurs, then we can make significant strides in improving the health of our seniors. Indeed, we should be aware of how social support, connectedness, and love — our social heart — can impact the health of the hearts of those around us.

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[i] Valtorta NK, Kanaan M, Gilbody S, et al Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies Heart 2016;102:1009-1016.

[ii] “What Is Coronary Heart Disease?” National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 22 June 2016. Web. 26 May 2017. <https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/cad>.

[iii] Sorkin, Dara, Karen S. Rook, and John L. Lu. “Loneliness, Lack of Emotional Support, Lack of Companionship, and the Likelihood of Having a Heart Condition in an Elderly Sample.” Annals of Behavioral Medicine. 24.4 (2002): 290-298. Print.

[iv] “What Is Coronary Heart Disease?” National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 22 June 2016. Web. 26 May 2017. <https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/cad>.

[v] “Report on the Social Isolation of Seniors.” Canada.ca. N.p., 14 July 2016. Web. 26 May 2017. <https://www.canada.ca/en/national-seniors-council/programs/publications-reports/2014/social-isolation-seniors/page03.html>.

[vi] Tomaka, Joe, Sharon Thompson, and Rebecca Palacios. “The Relation of Social Isolation, Loneliness, and Social Support to Disease Outcomes Among the Elderly.” Journal of Aging and Health. 18.3 (2006): 359-384. Print.