Loneliness can cause heart disease and strokes, says study

A lonely person in Greece hit by the economic crisis. [Stavros Charakopoulos / Flickr]

Loneliness increases the risk of developing heart disease and suffering strokes, new research has found.

Researchers from the universities of York, Liverpool, and Newcastle reviewed data from previously published studies to investigate the association between social isolation and loneliness and incident coronary heart disease (CHD) and strokes.

They focused on 4,628 incidents of CHD and 3,002 stroke events, finding a link between poor personal relationships and potentially death.

According to the latest figures from Eurostat, the number of deaths from heart attacks and strokes dropped significantly in the European Union between 2000 and 2013. But cardiovascular diseases still cause enormous costs for society and the economy at large.

Fatal heart attacks and strokes drop in EU, but costs remain high

The number of deaths from heart attacks and strokes has dropped significantly in the European Union during between 2000 and 2013, according to the latest figures from Eurostat.

The study indicated that the influence of social relationships on morbidity, how often the disease occurred in the population, was widely accepted, but the size of the risk to cardiovascular health remained unclear.

“Our work suggests that addressing loneliness and social isolation may have an important role in the prevention of two of the leading causes of morbidity in high-income countries,” the study said.

CHD and strokes

The study found that people with weaker social relationships had, on average, a 29% greater risk of developing CHD than people with stronger social relationships.

People who are socially isolated had, on average, a 32% greater risk of developing a stroke.

Take social relationships seriously

Nicole Valtorta, a researcher at the department of Health Sciences University of York in the UK, told euractiv.com that the study was important from a public health point of view.

“We take risk factors like obesity and physical inactivity into account when we consider strategies for preventing CHD and strokes, but we do not yet acknowledge the effects of social isolation and loneliness,” she said.

She added that although there was more to learn about the mechanisms and pathways through which loneliness and isolation can effect health, “the data supports taking social relationships seriously”.

“If we put our findings into context, the average effect we found is comparable in size to the effect of other psycho-social risk factors such as anxiety and job strain. Our results suggest that future efforts to tackle the disease burden of CHD and stroke would benefit from preventing persistent loneliness and social isolation,” she concluded.

State of play in the EU

Social inclusion takes centre stage in the Europe 2020 strategy. The EU has set targets to lift at least 20 million people out of poverty and social exclusion.

According to Eurostat data, nearly a quarter (24.4%) of the EU population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Bulgaria and Greece top the list of member states (40.1% and 36% respectively) in 2014.

Another worrying figure is the high number of young people “Not in Education, Employment, or Training” (NEETs).

Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, recently noted that there were 14 million NEETs across Europe.

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