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Isolation, loneliness linked to worse heart and brain health

Two men in a coffee shop look at a smartphone and smile at each other.

Aug. 25, 2022—Sometimes it's good to spend time by yourself — we can't always be social butterflies. But if you're often lonely or you don't socialize much, it could be bad for your heart and your brain, a new American Heart Association (AHA) report suggests.

The report's authors reviewed previous studies into the effects of social isolation and loneliness on cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) and brain health. Social isolation and loneliness are not the same. Social isolation is having few or infrequent social interactions. Loneliness is feeling alone, even if you are around other people. Past studies have found that these experiences may raise the risk of health problems, such as heart disease and dementia. And they may contribute to early deaths.

Key takeaways

The report found mixed evidence that isolation, loneliness or both cause or worsen conditions such as heart disease, heart failure or strokes. The evidence suggests they may take the greatest toll on those who've already been diagnosed with heart disease or had a stroke.

Among the findings:

Heart health:

  • Isolated people have an increased risk of dying from heart disease. One study found a two- to threefold increase in poor outcomes (including death) among those with existing coronary heart disease (CHD). CHD is the most common type of heart disease, and it can cause heart attacks. It occurs when arteries that supply the heart become narrowed by plaque deposits.
  • Isolated people who have heart failure have an increased risk of being hospitalized with heart failure. Also, they may be more likely to die earlier than those with stronger social ties.

Brain health:

  • Socially isolated and lonely people have a 32% increased risk of stroke.
  • Among those recovering from a stroke, having few social connections seemed to increase the risk of a second stroke.
  • Several studies found that loneliness may increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease. The report didn't find much evidence that social isolation causes dementia. But people with dementia may begin to withdraw from their social circle before they are diagnosed with the condition, and this could confuse the results of the studies, the report noted.

Possible reasons for these raised risks

More studies are needed to understand how loneliness and social isolation might harm the heart and the brain. But for now, scientists do have a few ideas:

Behavioral pathways. Being socially isolated or feeling lonely can be stressful. Perhaps as a result, some people may have habits or conditions linked to heart disease or stroke. For instance, they may drink too much alcohol, sleep poorly, feel more stressed and depressed, smoke, exercise less, or eat unhealthy foods.

Biological pathways. Some experts think that the stress of feeling lonely may trigger chronic inflammation in the body. This may lead to harmful brain and blood vessel changes that contribute to heart disease, stroke or dementia.

Are you lonely or alone?

If you feel lonely or isolated, you can tell your doctor. Your emotional well-being is as important as your physical health, and the two can be related, as this report and other studies suggest.

You can also take steps to stay connected, which can help make life fulfilling and fun. If you want to try new activities and make new friends, here are eight ideas you can try.

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