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Social isolation and loneliness have been linked to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular events such as coronary artery disease and strokes. Loneliness has also been linked to causing other issues which increase a person's mortality risk.

Loneliness is known to be associated with a weakened immune system, elevated blood pressure and premature death.

The impact of loneliness on increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke, which are the two leading causes of illness and death in high income countries, is widely accepted but the size of which is not entirely known though. 

Researchers have gone through data of 23 eligible studies, which involved over 180,000 patients who had been diagnosed with various cardiovascular events such as heart attacks, as well as strokes, over a period of 3-21 years.

The analysis of the collected data showed that loneliness and social isolation were linked to a 29% increased risk of developing a heart attack, and a 32% increased chance of suffering a stroke. The important aspect that was noted, was that these findings were comparable to other recognized psycho-social factors linked to heart disease such as emotional and physical stressors, tension and anxiety.

No solid conclusions could be drawn regarding cause and effect, though, since this was an observational study. Another issue was that other possible and unmeasured factors weren't able to be excluded as potential causes of increasing the patients' morbidity and mortality risk. However, the above-mentioned findings did add relevance to the concern that public health has over the importance of social interactions for healthy living.

The significance of the findings

The findings of the collected data are clinically significant in that it is suggested that social interactions may then be necessary in order to promote healthy living, improving quality of life and therefore reduce patient morbidity and mortality.

Promoting social interaction would then be just as important as promoting increased physical activity, the cessation of using tobacco products, reducing alcohol intake and decreasing saturated fat intake in order to reduce the risk of developing or worsening cardiovascular disease.

Further research has then been suggested, to determine whether interventions targeting social isolation and loneliness will help to prevent death and disability caused by heart disease and stroke. It has also been suggested that social factors be included in medical education, patient risk assessment, as well as in the policies and guidelines which are applied to populations and to the delivery of health services.

Effects of loneliness 

Loneliness can lead to other physical and mental complications. These can include the following:

Physical complications

  • As mentioned; cardiovascular diseases, strokes and high blood pressure due to increased levels of interleukin-6.
  • Decreased body heat due to vasoconstriction of the peripheral blood vessels.
  • Lowered immunity due to altered DNA transcription in immune cells. This can result in viral reactivation of organisms such as herpes, and an increased risk of bacterial and fungal infections.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Obesity.
  • Increased cortisol levels.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Sleep related issues.
  • Increased disease progression in HIV+ patients.

Mental complications

  • Increase in anxiety and the possibility of developing anxiety disorders.
  • Major depression .
  • Increased risk for attempted or successful suicide.
  • Alcoholism and/or substance abuse.
  • Loneliness has been linked with personality disorders such as a schizoid personality.
  • Anti-social behaviour in children.
  • Learning difficulties and memory impairment.
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