By nature, human beings are social creatures. However, as we age, personal dynamics and lifestyles change, which can lead to loneliness and isolation. Loneliness is not limited by age, sex, marital status, or job title. CEOs feel it, as do new moms, grandparents, recent college graduates, and elementary school students. Even royalty is not immune to it. The Duchess Catherine of Cambridge said in April last year that she felt lonely and isolated as a mother.
What is loneliness, exactly? Most of us have felt it in one way or another. It is the feeling that arises when there is a gap between the social interactions you want and reality. We feel separate, even alienated, and it can last for a short stretch or an extended period. It’s important to put attention on one can feel lonely even when surrounded by other people.
According to a new study published in the journal Jama, this sensation increases the risk of older women developing life-threatening heart problems. The scientists analyzed data from 57,000 women over the age of 65 who were followed for nearly a decade. Subjects were asked about their level of loneliness and social isolation, and this was compared to rates of heart disease.
The investigation found that women who felt lonely and isolated were 13% to 27% more likely to be diagnosed with heart disease, and he warned that increased isolation caused by COVID-19 and lockdowns may have put more women older at risk of heart problems.
“We are social beings. In this time of COVID-19, many people are experiencing social isolation and loneliness that can become chronic states. It is important to better understand the acute and long-term effects these experiences have on cardiovascular health and general well-being,” said lead author Dr. Natalie Golaszewski of the University of California.
For the specialist social isolation and loneliness are “slightly correlated” and can occur at the same time, but they are not mutually exclusive. For example, a socially isolated person does not always feel lonely, while a person may still experience loneliness even if they see many friends and family.
In the same line, the co-author of the study, Dr. John Bellettiere, clarified:“ Social isolation is about being physically away from people, like not touching, seeing, or talking to other people. Loneliness is a feeling one that can be experienced even by people who are regularly in contact with others.”
Bellettiere added that social isolation and loneliness are a “growing public health problem” as they are associated with health problems such as obesity, smoking, physical inactivity, poor diet, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
The new study involved more than 57,000 postmenopausal American women who had previously responded to questionnaires assessing social isolation between 2011 and 2012. They were sent a second questionnaire assessing loneliness and social support between 2014 and 2015.
Participants were followed from the time the questionnaire was completed until 2019 or when they were diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. One of the main findings was that a total of 1,599 of the participants experienced life-threatening heart problems.
Loneliness in the general population is also linked to poor lung health. The British Heart Foundation recognizes “an association between social isolation and an increased risk of dying.” At the same time, 2016 research from the University of York found that loneliness and poor relationships were associated with a 32% increased risk of stroke.
“As social networks shrink, older adults are at greater risk of social isolation and loneliness”, the authors wrote. A quarter of adults age 65 and older report social isolation and a third of adults age 45 and older report feeling lonely.
“We don’t yet know if the increased risk of cardiovascular disease is due to acute exposure to social isolation and loneliness or if prolonged exposure accumulated over a lifetime is to blame. Further studies are needed to better understand that,” Bellettiere concluded.