Women’s heart health is in the spotlight during the month of February and middle-aged and older women are urged to make time for regular wellness screenings, exercise, and a nutritious diet. According to recent research, another factor – loneliness, can increase the risk of developing heart disease by as much as 27 percent.
As reported by the Washington Post, a study of data from nearly 58,000 postmenopausal women over more than 10 years found that on its own, social isolation increased heart disease by 8 percent and loneliness increased cardiovascular disease by 5 percent. But combined, strong feelings of isolation and loneliness increased the risk for cardiovascular disease by 13 to 27 percent over women with less social isolation and less loneliness.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among American women, accounting for about 1 in every 5 deaths, according to the American Heart Association. Studies have shown that people who experience social isolation are also more likely to be physically inactive, smoke, drink alcohol, and have a poor quality diet. The incidence of diabetes and depression is also greater among postmenopausal women who experience more social isolation and loneliness.
The study’s findings support the value of providing mental health and community resources to older women to improve social connection and reduce feelings of loneliness. Society’s understanding of the link between isolation and illness has grown significantly as so many people experienced ongoing social isolation and loneliness during the pandemic. Scientists now consider loneliness a serious public health hazard – social isolation can cause chronic stress and anxiety that increases inflammation in the body and reduces the ability to fight infection.
To combat loneliness, it’s important to cultivate a variety of relationships with friends, family, co-workers, or romantic partners. Feelings of loneliness won’t resolve overnight but it may help to schedule times to visit with friends and family or join a group exercise or photography class, and gradually isolation and loneliness can be lessened. It may also be beneficial to limit time spent on social media where carefully curated images and messages can leave people with the impression they are the only ones who are feeling lonely or isolated, which can worsen these feelings. Keep in mind that the images many people present on social media are not real life, and the filtered selfies don’t reveal the whole story.