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People in social isolation face 40% more risk of stroke or heart attack, says report

Studies have linked loneliness with about 50% increased risk of dementia. It is also associated with poorer mental health
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many to confine themselves to their homes. While that does help slow the pandemic down, social isolation could be bad news for the heart, suggests a new study. Socially isolated people face a 40% higher risk of stroke or heart attack than those who stay physically connected. Studies suggest solitude is most common among older adults because they are more likely to live alone, suffer from a chronic illness or hearing loss.  Researchers now speculate that social distancing could trigger a loneliness epidemic across all age groups.

"This observation is of particular interest in the present discussion on the Covid-19 pandemic, where social contacts are or have been relevantly restricted in most societies," Dr Karl-Heinz Jöckel, from the Institute for Medical Informatics, Biometry and Epidemiology and one of the authors of the study says. Previous studies have looked at how social isolation affects human health. One study suggested that it significantly increased a person's risk of premature death from all causes. Studies have linked loneliness with about 50% increased risk of dementia. It is also associated with poorer mental health.

"We have known for some time that feeling lonely or lacking contact with close friends and family can have an impact on your physical health", Dr Janine Gronewold from the University Hospital in Essen, Germany, said. "What this study tells us is that having strong social relationships is of high importance for your heart health and similar to the role of classical protective factors such as having a healthy blood pressure, acceptable cholesterol levels, and normal weight," she adds.

Gronewold and her colleagues recruited 4,316 individuals who had no history of heart ailments at that time. They assessed social contact of the participants based on their marital status and cohabitation, contact with close friends and family, and membership of the political, religious, community, sports, or professional organizations. The team then followed them for 13 years.

People can rely on technology to stay connected (Getty Images)

During the said period, the team recorded 339 heart attacks or strokes among the participants. Out of them, 530 died. After ruling out factors that could have led to heart ailments and death, they found that social isolation increased the future risk of cardiovascular events by 44% and the risk of death from all causes by 47%. Financial strain was linked to a 30% higher risk of cardiovascular events.

According to an expert, social support helps people cope better with stress. "If you have got someone who has your back or you can count on, you can get through it together," Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, tells The Guardian. Meanwhile, researchers are trying to understand why socially isolated people suffer from poorer physical and mental health. "This is obviously a worrying finding, particularly during these times of prolonged social distancing,"  Dr Gronewold explains.

"What we do know is that we need to take this seriously, work out how social relationships affect our health and find effective ways of tackling the problems associated with social isolation to improve our overall health and longevity," Dr. Dirk M. Hermann from the University Hospital in Essen, who is also a part of the study. There are ways of staying connected during this trying time. "People can rely on technology. Lockdowns or mandatory quarantine doesn't impact our internet or our phones," Dr Robin Gurwitch,  psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center, who was not involved in the study, tells MEA World Wide (MEAWW).