Loneliness, isolation and your heart health

Feelings of isolation can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. But there are ways to manage it
A woman sits outdoors with a hand on her chin.

Humans are social creatures by nature. In centuries past, we needed each other for protection and acquiring food. Nowadays the threats from isolation are not as apparent, but social isolation and loneliness are still detrimental to your health.

Despite how connected we think we are on social media, nearly half of adults feel lonely or left out and a quarter are socially isolated. With the pandemic and its restrictive lockdown measures, these numbers are likely to be much higher.

Social isolation vs. loneliness

While people may refer to loneliness and social isolation interchangeably, they are different. Social isolation refers to the physical separation of a person from others, while loneliness is the perception of being alone. You can still be lonely while being around a lot of people. Similarly, you can be living alone but not feel isolated as long as you have a strong social network.

Social isolation and loneliness tend to be higher in older adults, which is understandable. As we get into our later years, friends and family members may have passed away, and reduced mobility may keep us from interacting with others. In addition, less education, low income and not being married all increase the chances of being isolated or feeling lonely. However, young adults may also experience loneliness, and to a greater extent than middle-aged adults.

What it means for your health

Social isolation and loneliness can increase your chances for heart disease, stroke and early death. One study reported that being socially isolated was associated with a 60% to 70% greater chance of death over seven years. Some researchers have even suggested being isolated or lonely is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

Many of the negative health effects of isolation and loneliness may be due to increased risk factors. Indeed, people who are lonely have increased blood pressure. Animal studies have shown that being isolated can lead to stiffer blood vessels. In addition, ongoing isolation and loneliness can change your immune system and result in inflammation, making you more susceptible to disease and infection.

Isolation and loneliness can also impact medical treatment. People with heart failure who were lonely had more hospitalizations and died earlier than those with heart failure who weren’t. But having a chronic condition may also lead to social isolation and loneliness, because of physical limitations or a lack of energy.

There’s also a strong connection between social isolation, loneliness and your mental wellbeing. Both conditions are associated with increased anxiety and depression. In mice, four weeks of isolation resulted in long lasting challenges to memory and mental function.

How to manage isolation and loneliness

With isolation and loneliness being so common, and even more prevalent in the pandemic, it’s likely that you or someone close to you is feeling lonely or isolated. Here are some things that can help.

  1. Increase your social contacts: If you can’t meet in person, reaching out by phone or video chat is just as good. Don’t worry about having a reason; “I just wanted to say hello” is as good as any. Keep in mind that it’s not the number of connections that matter, but the quality of those connections. 
  2. Volunteer: A review of 40 studies found that people who volunteered had a lower risk of early death. This social activity improves overall health and wellbeing. People who volunteer may have a lower risk for hypertension and also report better health. 
  3. Take care of a pet: Studies have revealed that a pet can provide positive psychological benefits. That includes reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation. 
  4. Sing and listen to music: Singing in a group or by yourself, and even just listening to music, can release oxytocin, the love hormone, and make you feel connected with people. 

We’ve survived over thousands of years by being connected with others — and the need to do so is as important now as it was then. Just like nutritious eating and regular activity, social connections are important for you to live a healthy and long-lasting life.

Dr. Scott Lear

Dr. Scott Lear is a leading researcher in the prevention and management of heart disease. He holds the Pfizer/Heart and Stroke Foundation Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, and he is a professor in the faculty of health sciences and the department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Lear also lives with heart disease himself. Follow his blog at drscottlear.com.