Social isolation is associated with an increased risk of a cardiovascular event of more than 40%, and of all-cause mortality approaching 50%, new research suggests.
"These results are especially important in the current times of social isolation during the coronavirus crisis," Janine Gronewold, PhD, UniversityHospital in Essen, Germany, told a press briefing.
The mechanism by which social isolation may boost risk for stroke, myocardial infarction, or death isn't clear, but other research has shown that loneliness or lack of contact with close friends and family can affect physical health, said Gronewold.
The findings were presented at the sixth Congress of the EuropeanAcademy of Neurology (EAN) 2020, which transitioned to a virtual/online meeting because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For this new study, researchers analyzed data from 4139 participants, ranging in age from 45 to 75 years (mean 59.1 years), who were recruited into the large community-based Heinz Nixdorf Recall (HNR) study. The randomly selected study group was representative of an industrial rural area of Germany, said Gronewold.
Study participants entered the study with no known cardiovascular disease and were followed for a mean of 13.4 years.
Investigators collected information on three types of social support: instrumental (getting help with everyday activities such as buying food), emotional (provided with comfort), and financial (receiving monetary assistance when needed).
They also looked at social integration (or social isolation) using an index with scores for marital status, number of contacts with family and friends, and membership in political, religious, community, sports, or professional associations.
Of the total, 501 participants reported a lack of instrumental support, 659 a lack of emotional support, and 907 a lack of financial support. Over 300 (309) lacked social integration, defined by the lowest level on the social integration index.
Participants were asked annually about new cardiovascular events, including stroke and myocardial infarction. Over the follow-up period, there were 339 such events and 530 deaths.
After adjustment for age, sex, and social support, the analysis showed that social isolation was significantly associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events (hazard ratio [HR], 1.44; 95% CI, 0.97-2.14) and all-cause mortality (HR, 1.47; 95% CI, 1.09-1.97).
The new research also showed that lack of financial support was significantly associated with increased risk for a cardiovascular event (HR, 1.30; 95% CI, 1.01-1.67).
Additional models that also adjusted for cardiovascular risk factors, health behaviors, depression, and socioeconomic factors, did not significantly change effect estimates.
"Social relationships protect us from cardiovascular events and mortality, not only via good mood, healthy behavior, and lower cardiovascular risk profile," commented Gronewold. "They seem to have a direct effect on these outcomes."
Having strong social relationships is as important to cardiovascular health as classic protective factors such as controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and maintaining a normal weight, said Gronewold.
The new results are worrying and are particularly important during the current COVID-19 pandemic, as social contact has been restricted in many areas, said Gronewold.
It's not yet clear why people who are socially isolated have such poor health outcomes, she added.