As parents prepare to send their grown(ish) children off to college in the coming weeks, many middle-aged and older adults will learn how to adjust to an empty nest. For single and married adults alike, social isolation and loneliness can have a detrimental effect on heart and brain health.
According to the American Heart Association, social isolation and loneliness are associated with about a 30 percent increased risk of heart attack and stroke, or death from either. This new statement published by the AHA also acknowledges the lack of data about interventions that may improve cardiovascular health for people who are socially isolated or lonely.
The risk of social isolation increases with age when older adults are more likely to experience the loss of a life partner or less social engagement due to retirement. It is estimated that one-quarter of American seniors are socially isolated and the incidence of loneliness is estimated to be even higher. Access to transportation, living circumstances, family relationships, and the COVID-19 pandemic also contribute to a greater risk for social isolation or loneliness which may worsen outcomes for people who already have heart disease or have experienced a stroke.
People who are isolated or feel lonely may be less likely to stay physically active, be more sedentary, and consume fewer fruits and vegetables. Studies have also found a link between isolation and a greater likelihood of smoking – another substantial risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Fitness programs, recreational activities, and interventions to address negative thinking have shown promise in helping to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness among older adults. Social engagement, physical activity, and a healthy diet are also foundational in helping to prevent dementia and cognitive impairment. Read more about how social isolation can harm health as you age and what can be done to avoid loneliness and isolation by following this link to the AHA website.