Can loneliness increase your risk of having a heart attack? Maybe, says a meta-analysis conducted by Nicole K Valtorta and published in the April 18, 2016 issue of the journal “Heart.” Valtorta is a scientist working at the University of York.
Valtorta and her team analyzed findings from 23 previous clinical studies that included data pertaining to 180,000 adults, more than 4,600 of whom had had a heart attack or angina pains. She found that individuals who reported dissatisfaction with their social relationships had a 29 percent higher correlation with cardiac events than their cohorts.
Though this study by no means proves that social isolation causes heart attacks, it still offers plenty of food for thought. Social isolation is linked with conditions like depression and stress that have been shown to have deleterious effects upon heart health.
Depression and Heart Attacks
Depression and heart disease frequently occur in the same individuals, although no causal link has been established between these two conditions.
Still, 20 percent of people who’ve had a heart attack go on to be diagnosed with depression soon after the attack, and in the majority of these cases, depression is thought to have preceded the cardiac event.
Depression can have a deleterious effect on many of the behaviors that go into maintaining a healthy lifestyle such as exercising regularly, losing weight (when medically advised), and complying with a nutritious diet. The anxiety that’s so often linked with depression can cause disturbances in normal heart rhythms called arrhythmias. Some studies have even linked depression with platelet abnormalities that make blood more likely to clot and are implicated in the development of atherosclerosis.
Stress and Heart Attacks
The body’s stress response evolved as a transient coping mechanism designed to deal with intermittent threats.
Signals from the brain trigger the adrenal glands to begin secreting a hormone called cortisol; cortisol raises heart rate and blood pressure, and mediates various other physiological responses that prepare your body to fight or take flight.
When stress becomes chronic, excess cortisol levels keep the blood pressure and heart rate elevated. There is some evidence that the number of leukocytes in your blood stream also rise, and that this, too, may play a role in the development of atherosclerosis.
The Importance of Being Content
Social isolation and loneliness are not quite the same thing Valtorta’s research focused on social isolation, which is easier to measure quantitatively than loneliness, a more subjective feeling. Many individuals who are surrounded constantly by other people, however, may feel emotionally isolated, while many individuals with few social connections are quite content Much more study will need to be undertaken to determine the precise nature of the relationship between isolation, loneliness, and heart disease, but Valtorta’s research is an intriguing beginning.