VIENNA — Social isolation is a word on the tip of everyone’s tongues these days. Staying away from others during this pandemic is keeping us safe, but a new study finds that prolonged social isolation is also quite dangerous.
Researchers warn that socially isolated people are over 40% more likely to suffer a heart attack, stroke, or other major cardiovascular event. Moreover, the socially isolated are nearly 50% more likely to die from any cause.
There was also an observed relationship between lack of financial support and increased cardiovascular risk.
The study was conducted by Dr. Janine Gronewold and Professor Dirk M. Hermann from the University Hospital in Essen, Germany. They analyzed data on 4,316 people (average age: 59 years old) who had been recruited for research between 2000 and 2003.
All of those participants initially had no known cardiovascular problems, and were tracked for an average of 13 years. Initially, each adult answered questions on their social support systems (marital status, number of close friends, memberships in various groups, clubs, organizations, etc).
“We have known for some time that feeling lonely or lacking contact with close friends and family can have an impact on your physical health”, Dr. Gronewold explains in a release. “What this study tells us is that having strong social relationships is of high importance for your heart health and similar to the role of classical protective factors such as having a healthy blood pressure, acceptable cholesterol levels, and a normal weight.”
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“This observation is of particular interest in the present discussion on the COVID-19 pandemic, where social contacts are or have been relevantly restricted in most societies,” adds Professor Jöckel, one of the PI’s of the HNR.
Over the course of that 13.4 year follow up period, 339 major cardiovascular events occurred (heart attacks, strokes), as well as 530 deaths. Even after the research team accounted for other potentially contributing risk factors (medical history, exercise schedule, etc), social isolation was still linked to a 44% increased risk of cardiovascular events and a 47% increased risk of death by any cause. Lack of financial support was associated with a 30% increase in cardiovascular risk.
“We don’t understand yet why people who are socially isolated have such poor health outcomes, but this is obviously a worrying finding, particularly during these times of prolonged social distancing,” Dr. Gronewold says.
“What we do know is that we need to take this seriously, work out how social relationships affect our health, and find effective ways of tackling the problems associated with social isolation to improve our overall health and longevity,” Professor Hermann concludes.
The study is published in the European Journal of Neurology.