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Loneliness and Social Isolation Increases Heart Disease in Women

Medically reviewed by Nassir Azimi, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 16, 2023

Loneliness Is bad for your health. We already know that it doesn’t just increase a person’s risk for mental illnesses like depression. It can also harm you physically. Lonely people are more likely to smoke, eat poorly, and be overweight than people who don’t feel that way. These behaviors can hurt your heart. Now new research reveals that women who are lonely or socially isolated have an elevated risk for heart disease –– even if they are nonsmokers with healthy eating habits and an average weight. Here’s what researchers discovered and how you can combat the condition.


Forced Isolation


The past two years have represented a global mental health experiment. Besides a COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an ongoing pandemic of social isolation and loneliness. From school and work closures to quarantines to shuttered gyms and remote-only houses of worship, most people found their normal social interactions sharply curtailed. Although older people faced greater health risks from the virus itself, younger people endured more mental health challenges. Just a few months into the pandemic, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly three-quarters of adults 18 to 24 who had responded to a survey admitted that they had experienced an adverse mental or behavioral health condition such as  anxiety disorder or depressive disorder during the provision month. More recently a survey showed that some 61 percent of respondents aged 18 to 25 reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the prior four weeks. As leader researcher, psychologist and senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Richard Weissbourd admitted, “I was surprised at the degree of loneliness among young people. If you look at other studies on the elderly, their rates of loneliness are high, but they don’t seem to be as high as they are for young people.”


However, in general, the older you are the more likely you are to be lonely or socially isolated. The two aren’t always connected. Social isolation is a physical state –– when you don’t regularly see other people and don’t have physical contact or conversations with them. Loneliness is a feeling, one that can happen in a house filled with people. After high school or college, it becomes increasingly difficult to meet new people even as familiar friends move away or take on responsibilities that limit social interactions. Not to mention over one out of four American adults currently live alone. A German study showed that while being socially isolated was not necessarily connected to poor health, loneliness increased the risk of death from all causes by nearly 20 percent. Now a new study suggests that both isolation and loneliness can increase a woman’s risk of heart disease. 


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Heart Disease - Effects of Stress and Anxiety

Heart Disease - Effects of Stress and Anxiety

The Study


Just as older people have been more likely to report having few friends and a weak support system, women are more likely to say this than men. Part of that is due to longevity. When a married couple are the same age, a woman is statistically more likely to become a widow — meaning females who live long lives are more likely to be alone. 


Examining the results of a cohort study of nearly 58,000 older U.S. women, researchers discovered that cardiovascular disease risk increased eight percent among those who reported being socially isolated and five percent for those who said they were lonely. However, the risk rose by over 25% among those who reported high levels of both. Even when adjusting for health conditions, isolated, lonely women faced an elevated risk for heart disease –– a leading cause of death with over 1.4 million victims since the COVID-19 pandemic reached U.S. shores in early 2020. Indeed, twice as many Americans died of heart disease in 2020 as died from COVID-19.  


As study author Natalie Golaszewski, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at University of California San Diego points out, “We are social beings. In this time of COVID-19, many people are experiencing social isolation and loneliness, which may spiral into chronic states. It is important to further understand the acute and long-term effects these experiences have on cardiovascular health and overall well-being.”


That’s why increasing your connection with other humans is so important. Start a book club. Join or rejoin your neighborhood temple, church, or mosque. Do a meet up. Volunteer. Consider adopting a dog –– playful pooches have proven abilities to increase your opportunities to interact with other humans. Sure, you might survive social isolation and loneliness. The question is, why would you want to?


Written by John Bankston

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