A recently published research paper confirms what we already know from experience: Loneliness and social isolation are hazardous to your heart health. Researchers in Britain conduced a meta analysis (a research of the research) of the data in 23 research papers and found that poor social relationships increased the risk of developing coronary heart disease by 29% and that there was a 32% increase in risk of stroke. These risks are higher than for obesity or inactivity . They defined social isolation as having few social contacts, and loneliness as feeling unhappy about the social relationships one does have (or lack of them). Other research has shown that loneliness can contribute to earlier mortality from all causes.
The researchers identified three ways in which a lack of social relationships affect health over time: behaviors such as physical inactivity, smoking, and alcoholism; psychological factors such as reduced coping skills and lower self-esteem, and physiological aspects such as reduced immune function and high blood pressure.
Earlier studies have proposed that social relationships may provide resources to buffer the effect of stressors and help the individual adapt to changing conditions. They may also directly or indirectly model and support healthy behaviors, and give the individual roles and experiences that give purpose and meaning to his or her life.
There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. It is a matter of quality, not quantity. A person can be lonely in a crowd or with a spouse or caregiver, or conversely, be perfectly happy to be alone. The important distinction is how one feels about it. Obviously, those at greatest risk are those who live alone.
In my next blog, I will discuss some ways to prevent loneliness and isolation in retirement and later years.
 The paper was published in the July 2016 issue of the British journal Heart.