Loneliness and Social Isolation Increase Risk of Heart Disease for Women

A 2022 research study reported in JAMA Network Open concluded that loneliness and social isolation could significantly increase the risk of heart disease in older women. In this article, we discuss this important research study and the impact of loneliness and social isolation on the heart health of senior women.

About the Research Study on Older Women, Loneliness, Social Isolation, and Heart Disease

The research study evaluated 57,825 postmenopausal women who are part of the Women’s Health Initiative. The Women’s Health Initiative is a large national research database to which Harvard Medical School researchers contributed. The women in the study were of an average age of 79.

The research participants filled out a questionnaire about social isolation between 2011 and 2012. They completed another survey assessing loneliness and social support between 2014 and 2015.

Nearly 1,600 participants were diagnosed with cardiovascular disease by the end of the study’s follow-up period in 2019. Social isolation raised the risk of heart disease by 8 percent. Loneliness raised the risk of heart disease by 5 percent.

The research study also found that women who reported high loneliness and social isolation levels were at an even higher risk of heart disease. Women experiencing loneliness and social isolation were at a cardiovascular risk of 13 percent to 27 percent higher than peers with lower scores.

This study again underscores the reality that social isolation and loneliness are cardiovascular risk factors. Loneliness and social isolation contribute to heart disease in the same manner that other conditions do, conditions that include:

  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Sedentary lifestyle

Loneliness and Smoking Result in the Same Risk of Heart Disease

Harvard Medical School reported on a series of research studies that concluded that loneliness and smoking result in the same risk of heart disease. The report involved 23 individual research studies. The total number of participants in the study was 181,000 adults.

The data from the study revealed that 4,628 people in the study had heart-related events. These included heart attacks and angina. It also included fatal events. Approximately 3,000 strokes were recorded among the people in the various studies.

The researchers further reported that loneliness, social isolation, or both increased the risk of heart attack by about 29 percent. Loneliness, social isolation, or both increased the risk of stroke by 32 percent. The increase in risks was similar to that of what is experienced by light smokers and individuals diagnosed with obesity.  

In evaluating these studies, Harvard Medical School concluded:

Loneliness has already been linked to weaker immune systems and high blood pressure, according to lead researcher Dr. Nicole Valtorta of the University of York in the United Kingdom. While this was an observational study, she says the findings suggest that having a stronger social network benefits your well-being and health and that maintaining existing relationships and forging new friendships could be an effective form of disease prevention.

Loneliness and Social Isolation Do Not Require Living Alone

At first, when people are asked to consider loneliness and social isolation among seniors, there is nearly always a default to the idea that individuals experiencing loneliness and social isolation always live alone.

It certainly is true that people who live alone, particularly seniors, are at risk of experiencing loneliness or social isolation. Research studies reveal that living alone is not equivalent to loneliness or social isolation. It is a factor. However, living alone is unnecessary for a person to experience loneliness or social isolation.

In addition, marriage is not a guarantee that a person will be able to avoid loneliness or social isolation. 33 percent of women and 45 percent of men indicated they were lonely despite living with a spouse. These represent significant percentages of men and women in the United States.

As an aside, widows seem more likely than widowers to experience loneliness or social isolation. Widows are twice as likely to feel lonely or isolated compared to widowers.

Assisted Living and Socialization

Some older adults decide to move to an assisted living community because they need help with activities of daily living. In addition to needing help with activities of daily living, the ability to socialize readily often is also an appealing part of assisted living for many men and women over the age of 65. Heightened socialization is realized through activities, events, programming, and even such things as meals. True friendships can be built in assisted living communities, meaningful relationships that enhance the lives of older women and men who previously have felt lonely and isolated.