The negative effect of loneliness on health

Loneliness is not just a social or emotional condition; it affects physical health.

The scourge of loneliness has been with us since time immemorial, but only in recent years has its toll on human health gained appreciation. New research shows that feeling lonely or socially isolated bumps up a person’s average risk for coronary heart disease and stroke — two of the developed world’s most prolific killers — by 50%.

As a risk factor for heart attack, clogged arteries or stroke, those statistics put loneliness on a par with light smoking, anxiety and occupational stress. And they make social isolation a more powerful predictor of such vascular diseases than are either high blood pressure or obesity…

The new research, published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal’s publication, Heart, aggregated the findings of 23 separate studies that asked people to characterize their level of social engagement. Each of those studies then tracked participants for periods ranging from 3 to 21 years and noted whether they had a first stroke or were newly diagnosed with, or died from, coronary heart disease…

As a result, it’s hard to know whether loneliness is a contributor to, the result of, or just another symptom of poor health. And for the same reason, it’s hard to know whether programs aimed at getting the socially isolated to re-engage will improve their health, and how.

Social relationships matter, not just for using weak ties to get a job but also to improve your health.

The article hints at interventions at the end, primarily suggesting that doctors can ask about social networks and relationships. However, how possible is it for doctors to incorporate more social factors into their analysis, whether that involves asking people about social behaviors or recommending treatment? Doesn’t a finding like this suggest we need a more holistic approach to health that would incorporate physical conditions as well as emotional and social conditions? Perhaps we need more of the biopsychosocial approach. Maybe this requires having multiple professionals – doctors, social workers, psychologists – working together as units to address conditions.

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