A recent review published in the Journal of the American Heart Association has determined that social isolation and loneliness are common and that both are risk factors for having worse cardiovascular and brain health.
The study defined social isolation as “the objective state of having few or infrequent social contacts,” while loneliness is defined as perceived isolation from others that is distressing. While the two are related, loneliness and social isolation are distinct states that are not necessarily experienced at the same time. The authors reviewed research from four medical databases to examine the potential relationships between social isolation and loneliness and cardiovascular and brain health.
Overall, social isolation and loneliness were both associated with an approximately 30% increase in the risk of heart attack or stroke. Social isolation and loneliness were associated with a 29% increase in the risk of a heart attack and/or death due to heart disease and a 32% increase in the risk of stroke and/or death due to stroke. Having few social connections was also associated with an increased risk of premature death from any cause, particularly among men. Social isolation correlated with chronic stress, and both social isolation and loneliness were associated with increased inflammation.
The risks of social isolation and loneliness tend to increase with age, but both can be experienced at any point throughout one’s lifetime. Young adults may be at particularly high risk, and Gen Z was described in a recent survey as the loneliest generation. Part of the reason that social isolation and loneliness are associated with worse heart and brain health may be that they are also associated with behaviors that lead to worse heart and brain health, including less physical activity, lower fruit and vegetable consumption, and more sedentary leisure time. While the associations are clear, the authors noted that there is an urgent need for more research on programs and interventions to help those who are at risk of isolation and loneliness.