Loneliness and heartbreak are no doubt intertwined — but according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, being lonely can cause much more than just an emotional response. Patients with heart failure who experienced loneliness and social isolation were actually more likely to die than their peers who had company. These results suggest that avoiding loneliness when experiencing heart failure may actually save your life.
The researchers surveyed 1,681 patients who had been diagnosed with heart failure. Around 6 percent of these patients reported intense feelings of social isolation. Compared to the group with lower levels of social isolation, the group of lonely patients were 3.7 times more likely to die, 1.7 times more likely to become hospitalized, and 1.6 times more likely to visit the emergency room.
“Our study found a patient’s sense of feelings of loneliness or isolation may contribute to poor prognosis in heart failure,” senior study author Lila Rutten, Ph.D, told the American Heart Association.
Over 6 million people in the United States live with heart failure; each year, there are over 960,000 new cases diagnosed. According to this new study, approximately one-fourth of patients with heart failure experience moderate to high levels of perceived social isolation. Even moderate levels of social isolation resulted in a greater number of outpatient doctor visits, implying a greater health concern.
This isn’t the first study that’s linked loneliness to grim health outcomes. According to American Association of Retired Persons’ (AARP) Loneliness Study, approximately 42.6 million adults over age 45 in the United States suffer from chronic loneliness.
Loneliness and social isolation could actually pose a greater health risk than obesity in America, according to research presented by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2017 — and their impact is expected to grow in coming years. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D, presented this research, saying in a release, “Many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’ Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival.”
“According to Holt-Lunstad’s research, loneliness is as much of a problem as, if not a bigger problem than, smoking and drinking,” a representative from the APA told The Daily Meal.
But this new study did leave some good news — according to their research, the relatively simple method they used to measure social isolation in patients yielded accurate results and could be quickly adopted in clinical practice. With a brief screening, the researchers hope to provide an opportunity for early intervention.
“This study suggests that it may be important to inquire about patients’ feelings of isolation and loneliness or use a formal screening tool,” Gregg C. Fonarow, MD, co-chief of clinical cardiology at the UCLA Division of Cardiology, told The Daily Meal. “Steps to reducing isolation, such as joining community or heart failure patient support groups — as well as other personalized strategies — may be helpful.”
With these resources, doctors will be able to identify and treat patients who could benefit from more social connection and, instead of the negative effects of loneliness, help them experience some of the incredible health effects of happiness instead.