Loneliness and Social Isolation: Increasing The Risk of Stroke and Heart Attack


There’s a well-known saying that “No Man Is An Island.” Each of us needs social connections to survive and thrive, being the social beings that we are. But as people grow old, they often spend more time alone, and being alone may make older people more vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, which can affect their health and overall well-being. 

Several studies demonstrate that loneliness and social isolation are linked with higher risks for health problems, including heart disease, depression, and cognitive decline. One of these is the study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The study reviewed existing observational and intervention research that investigates the impact of social isolation and loneliness on cardiovascular and brain health and found that social isolation and loneliness are linked with nearly 30 percent more risk of heart attack or stroke or mortality from either. We will give you further insight into the relationship between social isolation and loneliness and cardiovascular and mental brain conditions by highlighting some of the crucial findings of the study.

Social Isolation and Loneliness Implications On Cardiovascular and Brain Health

Loneliness and social isolation are prevalent conditions that are particularly highest among young and older people for varying reasons. Although they are related and are commonly used interchangeably, they are distinct constructs with different effects on health. 

Social isolation is referred to as the objective state of having limited or infrequent social contacts. In comparison, loneliness is perceived isolation that results in distressing effects for an individual.

Several known reasons for increased isolation and loneliness among younger adults include heightened social media use, less meaningful in‐person engagement activities, and less experience regulating emotions. Also, young adulthood is when young adults are naturally isolating themselves since their identities are changing, and they are learning how to relate to others and their environment.

Several previous studies have associated social isolation and loneliness with adverse health outcomes for over a decade. Since social isolation and loneliness are becoming even more common across the U.S. population, their impact on public health also becomes more significant.

Hence, the review researchers of a Journal of the American Heart Association study examined existing studies on social isolation to investigate the relationship between social isolation and cardiovascular and brain health. Their analysis demonstrates the following findings:

  • Social isolation and loneliness are common yet less known cardiovascular and brain health determinants.
  • Lack of social connection is linked with a heightened risk of premature death from all causes, particularly among men.
  • Isolation and loneliness are associated with increased inflammatory markers, and individuals who were less socially connected were likelier to have physiological symptoms from chronic stress.
  • Depression and social isolation have a mutual relation, where depression may lead to social isolation, which may increase the chances of depression.
  • Childhood social isolation is linked with increased cardiovascular risk factors in adulthood, including obesity, high blood pressure, and increased blood glucose levels.

Other factors that affect social connections include several socio-environmental factors, such as transportation, living arrangements, dissatisfaction with family relationships, the pandemic, and natural disasters. 

Based on their analysis of existing studies, the researchers stated that there is strong evidence linking social isolation and loneliness with more chances of worse heart and brain health. On the other hand, the data on the relationship with certain outcomes, such as heart failure, dementia, and cognitive impairment, is limited.

Other evidence from the review suggests that:

  • Social isolation and loneliness are linked to a 29 percent increase in the risk of heart attack and heart disease death and a 32 percent heightened risk of stroke and death.
  • Socially isolated individuals with heart conditions had a two- to three-fold increase in death during a six-year follow-up study.
  • Adults that are socially isolated with three or fewer social contacts a month may have a 40 percent increased risk of recurrent stroke or heart attack.
  • 5-year heart failure survival rates were lower for socially isolated people and those who were both socially isolated and clinically depressed than those who had more social contacts and were not depressed.

The researchers also found that social isolation and loneliness are linked with behaviors that negatively affect cardiovascular and brain health, such as lower physical activity levels, less intake of fruit and vegetables, and more sedentary time. 

Based on these findings, the researchers urged the development, implementation, and evaluation of programs and interventions that will help minimize the negative effects of social isolation and loneliness on cardiovascular and brain health, particularly for more vulnerable populations.

Health professionals also play a crucial role in this by checking in on those who are socially isolating themselves and experiencing feelings of loneliness and referring them to community resources that will help them connect with others.

Finally, the researchers also recommended further research on the impacts of social isolation and loneliness on health outcomes for people that belong to populations or groups vulnerable to social isolation. 

Journal Reference

Cené, C. W., Beckie, T. M., Sims, M., Suglia, S. F., Aggarwal, B., Moise, N., Jiménez, M. C., Gaye, B., & McCullough, L. D. (2022). Effects of objective and perceived social isolation on cardiovascular and Brain Health: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association. Journal of the American Heart Association, 11(16). https://doi.org/10.1161/jaha.122.026493 

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