Behavior Change Could Save Millions of Lives
Whether or not you’ve seen Castaway, the famous film about a man stranded on an island, you’ve probably seen pictures of Tom Hanks and his friend, “Wilson,” the volleyball. In the film, Tom Hanks’s character has been alone so long that he gives a volleyball a face and soon begins talking to it. The story gets at the core of loneliness and isolation. Humans need connection. It probably wouldn’t surprise you that loneliness and isolation can be hard on your mental health. But did you know that loneliness and isolation can also affect your physical health? New research suggests staying connected to friends and family could be heart-healthy, particularly in older age. Isolation and feelings of loneliness can actually increase your risk for heart disease.
In a study of postmenopausal women, the participants were asked two separate series of questions. The first identified a social isolation score and the second measured loneliness on a scale. Using information on cardiovascular health from annual medical updates, researchers were able to analyze how isolation and loneliness affected heart health risk of each participant. If a participant had either a higher level of social isolation or loneliness, they also had a higher risk of cardiovascular incident. But the risk was even higher when participants scored at high levels of both social isolation and loneliness.
For older adults, there is also a higher risk of feeling lonely or isolated. This is a life stage where daily activities and acquaintances can change significantly. People often retire and no longer have the immediate connection and purpose that a work environment can bring. As people age, they may also experience more family loss. As people age and their networks decrease, it is important to find ways to stay connected.
Knowing that social isolation and loneliness can negatively affect both mental and physical health, the National Institute of Aging suggests these activities as possible ways to stay connected to your community and to stay healthy:
There’s certainly a time and place for solitude to gather your thoughts, but do not let your home become an island of isolation and loneliness. Reconnect with those you love or consider meeting someone new. For both your mental and physical health, it will do your heart some good.