Feeling lonely could lead to a heart attack or stroke in older women

SAN DIEGO — Loneliness could potentially trigger a heart attack or stroke in older women, warns the American Heart Association. A new study shows that feeling lonely and social isolation were both associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease in women over the age of 70.

Social isolation is the quantifiable measure of social interactions in relationships, while loneliness is defined as the perceived level or feelings of being socially isolated and reflects a feeling of isolation, lack of companionship and feeling left out.

“Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women in the United States. We are learning that factors currently not identified in standard care, such as social isolation and loneliness, can impact women’s risk of cardiovascular disease,” says study lead author Dr. Natalie Golaszewski, of the University of California, San Diego, in a statement. “We are social beings. In this time of Covid-19, so many people are experiencing social isolation and loneliness, which may spiral into chronic states of social isolation and loneliness. It is important to further understand the acute and long-term effects these experiences have on cardiovascular health and overall well-being.”

The research team examined data from nearly 60,000 women, ages 73 to 85, with no previous history of a heart attack or stroke. Participants were followed for up to four years. The study evaluated possible links between social isolation and loneliness and the women’s risk of cardiovascular disease events.

Researchers used a validated scale to assess loneliness.

Social isolation was measured using an index score derived from a series of questions: whether they were married or in an intimate relationship; whether they lived alone; and the frequency of social activities, such as being with friends or family, communicating with friends or family, attending church, eating out or shopping.

Over the four-year follow-up period, 1,599 heart attacks, strokes or cardiovascular deaths occurred.

Researchers found the risk of cardiovascular disease events in the women were 16 percent higher in those who experienced high levels of socially isolation; 11 percent higher in those who experienced high levels of loneliness; and 29 percent higher in those with both high levels of social isolation and loneliness.

After the research team factored in smoking, physical activity, diet, history of diabetes, high blood pressure, medication use and physical functioning, the links to loneliness and social isolation were decreased.

“People who experience social isolation or loneliness tend to withdraw and don’t engage often in healthy behaviors, which may become a cyclical pattern,” explains Golaszewski. “Over time, the unhealthy behaviors coupled with social isolation and feeling lonely put them at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.”

The researchers recommend future studies should explore ways to address women’s needs for social connection.

Golaszewski says some women experience loneliness after being diagnosed with a serious illness and others after the loss of a child, spouse or family member.

“Our results suggest measures of social isolation and loneliness, even with brief questions, should be incorporated into standard care,” she adds. “We monitor our patients’ blood pressure, weight and temperature, and it might also be beneficial to capture the social needs that women may be lacking – to better understand cardiovascular risk and develop solutions.”

The study was funded by the National Institute of Aging of the National Institutes of Health.

SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.