Heart health effects of loneliness and isolation

A new study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychology provides an in-depth look at how the connection between social health and heart disease works, and who is most at risk.

Researchers from Monash University and Curtin University examined the link between social health and 12 risk factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease (CVD) in 11,498 Australian men and women over the age of 70.

They found that those with good social health were less likely to have multiple risk factors for heart disease, lowering their risk of having a heart attack or stroke within 10 years.

Those with good social health were found to be more physically active and less likely to have depression.

Physical inactivity and depression are both risk factors for heart disease.

“Good social health means you are less likely to have cardiovascular disease or other serious illness,” says lead researcher, Dr Rosanne Freak-Poli.

Dr Freak-Poli says the findings would help health professionals manage poor social health and CVD risks in older adults.

Key findings

The key findings of this study include:

  • Loneliness was associated with a greater estimated risk of CVD;
  • Those who did little or no physical activity, and/or were depressed, were more likely to have poor social health;
  • Low levels of physical activity, and depression, were the only risk factors consistently linked to all three components of social health;
  • Women and men with better social health across all three areas (social isolation, loneliness, and social support) were more likely to participate in high levels of physical activity and less likely to experience depressive symptoms;
  • Men were more likely to be socially isolated and not socially supported than women, but less likely to be lonely.

“We know there is a strong association between mental health and cardiovascular disease,” says Heart Foundation interim CEO, Professor Garry Jennings.

“This large study builds on our knowledge and is a timely reminder when many Australians are feeling isolated due to Covid-19 restrictions.

“A 2020 survey in response to Covid-19 restrictions found that 45% of respondents either agreed (26%) or strongly agreed (19%) that they often felt lonely.

“Exercise can play a key role in treating depression, improving mood, and decreasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

“If you are feeling lonely or depressed, you should talk to your doctor or reach out to family and friends.”

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