Loneliness puts elderly at risk for heart disease

Loneliness, lack of emotional support and lack of companionship or social support can leave elderly men and women vulnerable to heart problems. Dara Sorkin of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues found that for every unit increase in loneliness as measured among older adults in their study, there was a threefold increase in the odds of being diagnosed with a heart condition. From the University of California at Irvine :SOCIAL ISOLATION LEAVES ELDERLY AT RISK FOR HEART TROUBLE

Loneliness, lack of emotional support and lack of companionship or social support can leave elderly men and women vulnerable to heart problems, according to new research in the December issue of the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
Dara Sorkin, a Ph.D. candidate of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues found that for every unit increase in loneliness as measured among older adults in their study, there was a threefold increase in the odds of being diagnosed with a heart condition.

Units of loneliness were measured using information from a loneliness survey, during which the adults agreed or disagreed strongly with statements like “I can’t find companionship when I want it.”

The researchers used similar information to calculate each adult’s perceived emotional support and social support or companionship. Every unit increase in perceived emotional support and companionship was associated with a 97 percent and 91 percent decrease, respectively, in the odds of having a heart condition.

Although previous researchers have noted links between social isolation and cardiovascular disease (see related HBNS story at www.hbns.org/newsrelease/lonliness5-23-02.cfm), few have examined the direct correlation between the subjective feeling of “loneliness” and the medical condition of heart disease, say the researchers.

“Moreover, with few exceptions, researchers generally have not distinguished between two underlying social deficits that give rise to loneliness – specifically, unmet needs for emotional support and unmet needs for companionship,” Sorkin observes.

The health effects of social isolation may be especially important among the elderly, since older adults commonly experience disruption of their personal relationships by death or illness or may be removed from their social networks when they move into nursing homes or other managed care facilities.

Sorkin and her co-authors surveyed 180 elderly men and women ranging in age from 58 to 90, asking them to rate their level of loneliness, the availability of emotional support and companionship in their lives and the number of individuals that they could turn to for either support or companionship. Sixty-four percent of the participants were single, widowed or divorced, and slightly less than half of the individuals lived alone.

The participants also received a battery of medical tests for cardiovascular disease factors such as high cholesterol. The researchers conducted in-person interviews with the participants to assess depression and health behaviors such as smoking and lack of exercise.

Along with the significant correlation among loneliness, lack of emotional support and lack of companionship and heart disease, the authors found that levels of support and companionship were also significantly related to loneliness itself.

Having just one person around for emotional support seemed to be enough to reduce the risk of heart disease, while the healthy effects of social support required relationships with multiple individuals, according to the authors.

Despite these connections, Sorkin and colleagues were not able to identify any possible mechanisms by which feelings of loneliness could lead to heart problems, such as evidence that loneliness contributes to unhealthy behaviors like smoking or physical problems like high blood pressure.

The researchers suggest that further research on the link between loneliness and heart disease will benefit from considering how emotional support and companionship each contribute to the overall feeling of loneliness.

This research was supported by the National Institute on Aging.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Sometimes at somewhere in the world there’s always somebody who seems to have and own the very best thing that they could have in the world and yet they are still feeling lonely. I guess the hundreds and thousands friends that you added and saved to your Facebook mean nothing if you are still don’t know who to call when you needed someone to listen to you. I used to think that I have a lot of friends and when the bad times hit, I finally know that I am actually have nobody to be there for me. First step is always difficult but I did it anyway. I hope other lonely people out there will do the same too.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.