Loneliness and social isolation can raise the risk older women die of a ‘broken heart’

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Many lonely older women die, literally, of a broken heart while in social isolation, a new study reveals. The findings are particularly troubling when considering the social distancing measures the world is using to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

A team from the University of California-San Diego found an increase in heart disease risk of up to 27 percent in postmenopausal women who experience both high levels of social isolation and loneliness.

The findings, published online by JAMA Network Open, reveal that social isolation and loneliness independently increased cardiovascular disease risk by eight percent and five percent, respectively. However, if older women experienced high levels of both, their risk rose by 13 to 27 percent in comparison to women reporting low levels of social isolation and low levels of loneliness.

“We are social beings. In this time of COVID-19, many people are experiencing social isolation and loneliness, which may spiral into chronic states,” says study first author Dr. Natalie Golaszewski in a university release.

“It is important to further understand the acute and long-term effects these experiences have on cardiovascular health and overall well-being.”

Social isolation and loneliness are not the same thing

The study author explains that social isolation and loneliness are “mildly correlated” and can occur at the same time — but they are not mutually exclusive. For example, a socially isolated person is not always lonely. Conversely, a person experiencing loneliness is not necessarily sitting in social isolation.

Social isolation is about physically being away from people, like not touching or seeing or talking to other people,” says study senior author Dr. John Bellettiere, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health at UC San Diego. “Loneliness is a feeling, one that can be experienced even by people who are regularly in contact with others.”

The team reports that social isolation and loneliness are a “growing public health concern,” since they have a link to health conditions that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease including obesity, smoking, physical inactivity, poor diet, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

When researchers included all of those health behaviors and conditions in their study and adjusted for diabetes and depression, high social isolation and loneliness remained “strongly linked” to an increased risk for heart disease.

Raising the risk of the world’s number 1 killer

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States – responsible for one in every five deaths, according to official figures. The researchers say that as social networks shrink, older adults are more at risk for social isolation and loneliness. A quarter of adults 65 or older report they experience social isolation and one in three adults 45 or older report feeling lonely.

“We do not yet know whether the increased risk of cardiovascular disease is due to acute exposure to social isolation and loneliness or whether prolonged exposure accumulated over a lifetime is the culprit,” Dr. Bellettiere says.

Previous research indicates women experience more social isolation than men. The new study involved more than 57,000 postmenopausal American women who had previously responded to questionnaires assessing social isolation from 2011 to 2012. They completed a second questionnaire assessing loneliness and social support in 2014 to 2015.

Study authors followed the participants through 2019 or until the time they received a cardiovascular disease diagnosis. A total of 1,599 of the participants experienced cardiovascular disease during the study.

“Measures of social isolation and loneliness — even with brief questions as was done in our study — should be incorporated into standard care,” Dr. Golaszewski concludes.

“We monitor our patients’ blood pressure, weight and temperature, and it might also be beneficial to capture the social needs that individuals may be lacking to better understand cardiovascular risk and develop solutions.”

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.