Although previous studies have shown that social isolation and loneliness are significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease, their specific connection to heart failure has not yet been comprehensively addressed.
Now, a study published in the journal JAAC: Heart Failure has found that while both social isolation (being objectively alone or having infrequent social connections) and loneliness (the negative feeling emerging when someone’s actual level of social interaction is less than they would like it to be) are associated with higher rates of heart failure, whether or not someone feels lonely is more important in determining risk than if they are actually alone.
By assessing the health outcomes of over 400,000 middle-aged and older adults from the UK Biobank, the experts discovered that both social isolation and loneliness increased the risk of hospitalization or death from heart failure by 15 to 20 percent. However, loneliness appeared to be a more important factor, increasing these risks even if a person was not socially isolated. A reason for this could be that many people feel lonely even when they are in relationships or interact with others.
“These findings indicate that the impact of subjective loneliness was more important than that of objective social isolation,” said study senior author Jihui Zhang, a researcher at the Guangzhou Medical University in China. “These results suggest that when loneliness is present, social isolation is no more important in linking with heart failure. Loneliness is likely a stronger psychological stressor than social isolation because loneliness is common in individuals who are hostile or have stressful social relationships.”
The findings highlight the need for developing effective tools to screen for social isolation and loneliness in routine clinical care and to provide more social support to those who need it. Moreover, the relationship between levels of loneliness and socioeconomic factors should also be further investigated, since feelings of social disconnection are often triggered by poverty and related issues. Finally, the scientists aim to assess the impact of social isolation and loneliness on other health outcomes in vulnerable populations, such as type 2 diabetes.
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