Health prevention strategies need to consider the impact of loneliness and isolation on people’s health after a study found it increased the risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke.
People who felt cut off from society were 32% more likely to have a stroke and 29% more likely to develop coronary heart disease (CHD) – two of the leading causes of illness and death in high income countries – according to a study published in the journal Heart.
Researchers led by Nicola Valtorta from York University’s department of health sciences said: “Our findings suggest that tackling loneliness and isolation may be a valuable addition to CHD and stroke prevention strategies. Health practitioners have a leading role to play in acknowledging the importance of social relationships to their patients.”
They looked at 23 studies of 181,000 patients which measured their health outcomes and any feeling of social isolation. The researchers found that the impact of loneliness and isolation had a comparable impact on health as other recognised risk factors such as anxiety or a stressful job.
They found no difference between men and women.
One of the reasons for the findings could be that lonely people are less likely to take exercise and are more likely to smoke, the researchers said.
They said there had been little attention paid to primary prevention strategies such as promoting social networks or developing resilience.
In an accompanying article Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Timothy B Smith from the department of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University pointed out that individuals can feel lonely even when other people are about.
They said that social technology has the potential to combat loneliness and isolation but can also “contribute to problems exacerbating the risk.”
Thy called for research into the impact of interactions with others via technology has on health and well-being.
The Local Government Association’s community well-being spokeswoman Izzi Seccombe said: “With more than one million people aged over 65 believed to be suffering from loneliness, councils with their responsibility for public health see this as a major concern.”
She added: “Loneliness is an issue that needs our urgent attention, and something that will become an increasingly important public health concern as people live longer lives.”