Conventional risk factors largely explain the links observed between loneliness/social isolation and first time heart disease/stroke, finds the largest study of its kind published online in the journal Heart.
But having few social contacts still remains an independent risk factor for death among those with pre-existing cardiovascular disease, the findings show.
Recent research has increasingly highlighted links between loneliness and social isolation and cardiovascular disease and death. But most of these studies have not considered a wide range of other potentially influential factors, say the authors.
In a bid to clarify what role these other factors might have, they drew on data from nearly 480,000 people aged between 40 and 69, who were all part of the UK Biobank study between 2007 and 2010.
Loneliness and social isolation are linked to around a 30 per cent increased risk of having a stroke or developing coronary artery disease–the two leading causes of illness and death in high income countries–finds an analysis of the available evidence, published online in the journal Heart.
The size of the effect is comparable to that of other recognised risk factors, such as anxiety and a stressful job, the findings indicate.
Loneliness has already been linked to a compromised immune system, high blood pressure, and ultimately, premature death, but it’s not clear what impact it might have on heart disease and stroke risk.
The researchers trawled 16 research databases for relevant studies, published up to May 2015, and found 23 that were eligible.
Elderly people who are socially isolated and lonely may be at greater risk of early death, British researchers report.
Lack of social contact might be an even bigger risk factor than loneliness, they added. Why, however, isolation is such a powerful predictor of death isn’t clear.
“Social contact is a fundamental aspect of human existence. The scientific evidence is that being socially isolated is probably bad for your health, and may lead to the development of serious illness and a reduced life span,” said lead researcher Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College London.
There is also research suggesting that loneliness has similar associations with poor health, he said.
“In many ways, social isolation and loneliness are two sides of the same coin. Social isolation indicates a lack of contact with friends, relatives and organizations, while loneliness is a subjective experience of lack of companionship and social contact,” Steptoe said.