Loneliness, an Emotional Risk Factor for Heart Health

Social Isolation and Loneliness: Risks for Heart Health and Mortality

Heart Health: Here's How Loneliness Can Affect Your Heart

Loneliness, or perceived social isolation, refers to the subjective feeling of a disparity between desired and actual levels of social connectedness. Unlike social separation, which is a tangible state, loneliness reflects an objective measure of connectivity. It is widely recognized that loneliness poses a significant risk factor for illness and premature mortality; some estimates suggest that lacking social connections may elevate the risk of death by as much as 50%. The prevalence of loneliness is alarming. In 2021, nearly one-third of older individuals in the United States reported experiencing loneliness regularly, according to research by the World Health Organization (WHO), as stated by Dr. Prashant Pawar, Consultant-Interventional Cardiology, Fortis Hiranandani Hospital, Vashi (Mumbai).

Heart Health: Here's How Loneliness Can Affect Your Heart

What Loneliness Truly Means

Dr. Pawar explained that loneliness stems from an emotional response to social isolation, where it arises from the variance between a person’s desired and actual social connections. He emphasized that the quality of connections holds more significance in mitigating loneliness than sheer quantity.

Highlighting research from the European Society of Cardiology (EuroHeartCare 2018), Dr. Pawar underscored the adverse effects of loneliness on heart health, noting it as a significant predictor of premature mortality. The study indicated that, contrary to living arrangements, the feeling of loneliness carried greater weight in predicting negative health outcomes for both genders.

Effects of Social Isolation on Adults

“Adults facing social isolation or loneliness often grapple with persistent stress,” stated Dr. Pawar. “Moreover, with socioeconomic and demographic changes, a growing segment of the population is susceptible to feelings of isolation in contemporary society. The demographic of individuals aged 60 and above has tripled since 1950, primarily due to increased longevity.”

Dr. Pawar continued, “Factors such as diminished social interactions, prolonged periods of living alone, and heightened instances of loneliness are frequently associated with aging. Nonetheless, it’s important to recognize that loneliness can manifest at any life stage and isn’t solely attributed to the losses often associated with growing older.”

Impact Of Social Isolation On Adults

The surge in single-family households, delayed marriages, and the prevalence of two-income households has contributed significantly to the increasing rates of loneliness. Moreover, the advent of the internet has revolutionized societal communication and lifestyle, yet paradoxically, more individuals report feeling socially isolated despite greater access to digital media. Recent studies suggest that rather than improving well-being, excessive social media use may have adverse effects.

Research indicates a strong correlation between loneliness and mortality risk, with both men and women facing nearly double the risk when experiencing loneliness. Regardless of gender, individuals grappling with loneliness exhibit significantly lower quality of life and are three times more prone to feelings of anxiety and despair.

Dr. Pawar emphasized that health risk behaviors such as smoking, inadequate sleep, and physical inactivity are closely linked to social isolation and loneliness. Additionally, feelings of despair, anxiety, dysphoria, and social disengagement have been consistently associated with loneliness.

In terms of health outcomes, loneliness emerges as a more potent predictor of premature mortality, poorer mental health, and diminished quality of life among patients with cardiovascular disease, surpassing the impact of living alone. European guidelines on cardiovascular prevention underscore the heightened risk of acquiring coronary artery disease and premature death associated with social isolation. Consequently, individuals with existing cardiovascular conditions or those at high risk should undergo assessment for psychological risk factors.