Loneliness and social isolation are linked to around a 30% increased risk of having a stroke or developing coronary artery disease, according to a study review.
The size of the effect is comparable to that of other recognised risk factors, such as anxiety and a stressful job, indicate the findings by UK researchers.
“Addressing loneliness and social isolation may have an important role in the prevention of two of the leading causes of morbidity”
They noted that loneliness had already been linked to a compromised immune system and high blood pressure, but it was not clear what impact it might have on heart disease and stroke risk.
The researchers analysed 23 studies, involving more than 181,000 adults, 4,628 coronary heart disease “events” and 3,002 strokes.
Analysis of the data showed that loneliness or social isolation was associated with a 29% increased risk of a heart or angina attack and a 32% heightened risk of having a stroke.
No firm conclusions could be drawn about cause and effect or the potential impact of other unmeasured factors or reverse causation – whereby patients with undiagnosed disease were less sociable.
Nevertheless, the findings back public health concerns about the importance of social contacts for health and wellbeing, said the study authors who were led by researchers from the University of York.
“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,” they said in the journal Heart.
Christopher Allen, senior cardiac nurse for the British Heart Foundation, said: “Social isolation is a serious issue that affects many thousands of people across the UK.
“We know that loneliness, and having few social contacts, can lead to poor lifestyle habits such as smoking which can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke,” she said.
She added: “Although this observational study suggests a physiological link between loneliness and heart health problems, this is not a clear link and much more research is needed to understand if there truly is a relationship between the two.
“Earlier BHF-funded research has shown an association between social isolation and increased risk of dying, and the BHF continues to fund research exploring how our mental health affects our risk of developing heart problems,” said Ms Allen.